What would you say are 3 things that are killers to relationships?

There are many more than three, but here are big ones in no particular order:

1. Spending little time together, living apart, or maintaining separate lives.

You have to be in it to win it, right? They say that "absence makes the heart grow fonder." They were talking about short vacations, not parallel lives. 

If you live together but spend very little time together that needs to be a conscious decision that you've mutually agreed upon. It shouldn't be a default because you find yourselves chronically fighting or simply not enjoying yourselves when you are together. And make sure you get together regularly. Marriages work when apart for long stretches because both partners have dedicated their lives to having a rich and regular time together to renew and revitalize their relationship. It takes hard work to have a "long-distance relationship." It doesn't "just happen."

If you separated from each other hoping to get "perspective," understand that each and every day you are apart, and not in active couples therapy repairing what is wrong, is a day when your bonds are weakening. "Perspective" comes from engagement, not isolation. If you are apart, get help from a skilled couple's therapist to heal your bonds.

2. Mental illness and trauma histories.

Those with mental illness, addictions, or childhood trauma do not heal over time, in all but the most exceptional of circumstances. Living with someone suffering these conditions can cause a relationship to deteriorate, and you and your children to be seriously impacted by your spouse's condition.

It may seem like staying with someone with an active mental illness is a loyal thing to do but pressuring them to get help will only make matters worse. 

Many people who are impacted by these conditions are fearful and avoid getting professional help. They may have little desire to change or have no trust that professionals could be helpful to them. They may have convinced themselves that it is no one's business but their own or think they can "do it on their own," denying their behavioral impact on their loved ones. Many in need of services seek out this help only when they realize that they will lose important people, jobs, or other life benefits if they do not get the help they need.

And once in therapy, normal standards of behavior still apply. Therapy is a "support" not a miracle that solves all problems. It is hard work, and simply showing up for sessions does nothing. If your partner isn't changing their harmful behaviors, they may not be doing the demanding work, or they may have not found an effective therapist. Don't accept the plea: "well I went to therapy like you asked" as a "get out of jail free card" allowing unacceptable behavior to continue.

The most challenging cases that fit this description are personality disordered individuals who have a worldview that reinforces their distorted perception of people and relationships. Few will accept responsibility for the damage they inflict on others, choosing, instead, to project that responsibility onto their victims.

Worse still, long-term relationships with these spouses can condition their spouses into believing that they, the spouse, must change, by being kinder, more thoughtful, considerate, or just "different" to win the love and approval of their character disordered mate. 

Healthy relationships require two people willing to invest time, remain emotionally vulnerable, open, and honest with each other. And accept each other's foibles. But this acceptance can be warped when a character disordered mate expects to be "accepted" for emotional withdrawal, emotional, verbal, or physical abuse, sexual abstinence, or sexual excesses, among others. 

If you aren't sure what's normal behavior, get help yourself and ask. The impacted spouse is often reluctant to talk to others about their dilemma, secretly fearing that they ARE responsible for making the marriage better with their narcissistic, histrionic, or passive-aggressive partner. 

Many outside these relationships see these marriages as "ideal" because the disordered spouse puts on an effective public show. Once at home, however, they return to becoming hostile, ignoring, dismissing, or demonstrate otherwise abusive attitudes. When challenged, they point to some minor "misstep" their spouse made to justify this sudden change of attitude.

3. Emotionally Starving the Marriage.

In these cases, one or both hyper-focus on work, religious activities, the children, hobbies, etc. and offer little genuine curiosity or interest in one another. Your feelings are placated. Your worries are minimized. Your complaints dismissed. Your dreams are "yessed to death" unless they match the desires of your partner. 

You get the feeling that having any needs at all is an enormous inconvenience to your spouse. Requests to "go away alone together" are met with little enthusiasm or countered with suggestions for a "family vacation" or "an extended business trip," where a day or two are added on to meet the relationship needs. The experience if it happens at all, is dull, lifeless, and feels perfunctory, especially at bedtime.

Birthdays, anniversaries, or other special relationship times pass without fanfare or emotional significance. You are not celebrated. You are not the center of attention, or when you are, you feel their resentment. Very often, the ignored spouse feels "selfish" because "technically" they did receive a gift or went out to dinner, but they were still left heartbroken. You were left heartbroken because there was nothing special coming from your spouse. You were not celebrated. You were (and are) not cherished.

What is missing is your partner's felt joy that comes from delighting their beloved. They feel no such joy, so there is nothing to contagiously pick up. You are not celebrated for the wonderful person you are, and so you stop feeling like a wonderful person. You are not enjoyed for being a sexy gal or guy, so you stop feeling attractive. Your spouse meets their "duty" and no more. Their rage may flare quickly or they may look at you with dull eyes when you try to describe the problem you feel. They quickly place the blame on you saying, "I can never please you" or "you never appreciate anything."

Sex is the same way. Instead of mutually joyful pleasure, sex feels like an obligation. One feels "done to" or trapped into "doing for" their spouse. The sex is evaluated constantly and found "lacking." One or both withdraw. The "special time" that most couples covet to pleasure each other or simply be alone in each other's presence holds no such specialness. And the "problem" is hard to determine, even by a skilled therapist. 

Many spouses are labeled "frigid" or "unresponsive" as their bodies stop responding to their spouses. Once they leave this emotionally starved marriage, however, they are surprised to find that they actually are sexual people who love to be sexual and enjoy sexually pleasing their new partners. In their emotionally starved marriage, they were labeled the "sexual problem," but in reality, their bodies knew that there was no "joy in her pleasure," no playfulness or sincere desire. Sex was as lifeless and stale as their birthdays, holidays, and special occasions. Even though their withholding spouse was "angry" or "sex-starved," the actual sex was the emotional equivalence of "junk food" to be avoided.

Be the squeaky wheel

These are just three issues that can ruin a marriage. It is one of the reasons we do an extensive assessment prior to doing couples therapy, because problems, like people themselves, can be complicated. There is often one "squeaky wheel" who is unhappy with the status quo.

All it takes is one unhappy person in order to seek help. You don't need two people to agree that there is "something wrong." In fact, I often see couples where the lack of agreement about there being a problem is a big part of the problem. One denies, projects or minimizes the other's unhappiness, and hopes to stop further conversation.

Be the squeaky wheel. Don't settle for an unhappy marriage. Help is out there. Grab it.

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Dr. Kathy McMahon


Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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