Why Relationships Go Wrong (Ephesians 4:32)
Updated: Jul 25
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an interesting effect on relationships. For some, being locked down together has brought couples and families closer together. For others, the forced closeness has strained relationships. In recent weeks I have heard a lot about people who are distraught over strained or failed relationships. Few issues generate more clients for Christian counselors than troubled relationships, and the pandemic has increased the number of those. Turbulent, fractured, and broken relationships among spouses, parents and their children, siblings, relatives, friends, in-laws, coworkers, and team mates are not just common, they are ubiquitous. At one time or another, we all struggle with relationships. Human relationships are seldom easy. In fact, they can be downright difficult and often are.
Human relationships are like houses. First, they must be built and thereafter maintained. Further, if not properly maintained, they will eventually have to be repaired. Building and maintaining relationships are labor-intensive endeavors. Like any worthwhile undertaking, they require effort. Both parties in a relationship must be willing to put in the time and work. When this doesn’t happen, relationships fall into disrepair in the same way neglected houses do.
It is important to understand that relationships require work because, as with houses, repair costs almost always exceed maintenance costs. It takes more work to repair a broken relationship than it does to maintain one in the first place. Worse yet the emotional costs associated with broken relationships are always high, and repairs can be difficult. Like houses, if neglected long enough relationships can be damaged beyond repair.
One way to get a feel for the state of relationships in today’s society is to monitor the divorce rate. As of this writing, it stands at a staggering fifty-percent plus in the U.S. This means that more than half of the couples who promised to love, honor, and cherish each other in good times and bad have reneged on that promise and are now divorced. The failure rate for subsequent marriages is even higher. Worse yet, the divorce rate is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to broken relationships. It doesn’t take into account the broken relationships of people who cohabitate without ever marrying or turbulent relationships among family members, friends, relatives, and coworkers.
REASONS PEOPLE GIVE FOR BROKEN RELATIONSHIPS
People cite a lot of different reasons for the struggles they encounter in relationships. I summarize some of the more frequently stated reasons in this article. But before getting into reasons, a caveat is in order. Although the reasons summarized herein are real and valid, they represent what I call secondary causes. Behind all of the secondary causes lurks a primary cause; one that must be understood by people trying to build, maintain, or repair relationships. The primary cause of troubled, turbulent, and broken relationships is explained at the end of this article. But to set the stage, I will begin by summarizing the more commonly stated secondary causes.
Lack of Love
We live in a society in which romance novels, the entertainment industry, and on-line match-making sites promote a false understanding of what love actually is. The kind of love that has been popularized in society by television, movies, books, and the Internet rests on a foundation of self-centeredness. It’s all about what one partner can do for the other or how one partner makes the other one feel. I call this self-centered view of love ice-cream love.
People claim to “love” ice cream, but they really don’t. Rather, they love the way it looks, tastes, and makes them feel. They love the way it satisfies their urge for something sweet, creamy, and cold. Their so-called love of ice cream is a manifestation of self-centeredness. People don’t love ice cream; they love what it does for them. They “love” ice-cream from the perspective of self-indulgence. This is not love. When you love someone, your chief concern is for their best interests, not what they can do for you or how they make you feel.
Dishonesty and Broken Trust
“Lying about it hurt me even more than what he did.” “If she had just admitted what she did instead of lying, I could have forgiven her.” I hear these kinds of comments all the time. When you trust people, it means you consider them reliable, honest, and protective of your confidences and best interests. Because you trust them, you are willing to open up and place your deepest thoughts, secrets, ambitions, desires, feelings, and fears in their hands. In doing so, you also place your emotional welfare in their hands. You feel safe doing so because you trust them.
This is why it is so emotionally devastating when someone you believe in betrays your trust. Whether the person is a spouse, sibling, parent, child, relative, friend, coworker, team mate, or business partner, when someone betrays your trust the bottom falls out of the relationship. In the aftermath of the broken relationship, you are left wounded and rudderless. People who are betrayed by someone they trust often become jaded skeptics unable to trust again.
Trust is like money; it is difficult to earn but easy to lose. Broken promises, infidelity, dishonesty, or a lack of dependability can undermine in a matter of minutes the trust it has taken months or even years to establish. This is an important point to remember: trust in human relationships is never permanent. Rather, it must be re-earned every day. People in relationships are like people from Missouri, the “Show Me” state; you have to show them every day you can be trusted. Betrayal of trust is one of the most common secondary causes of broken relationships and, in turn, broken hearts.
“He never wants to talk with me and won’t listen when I want to talk.” “Talk, talk, talk. That’s all she ever wants to do. She would rather talk than eat.” I have heard variations of these comments many times from people in troubled relationships. In fact, these kinds of comments are made so frequently I have come to believe poor communication is at least a contributing factor in almost all relationship problems. Poor communication can magnify other causes of turbulence in relationships.
Effective communication is an important tool for building and maintaining relationships. It is just as important in repairing broken relationships. In relationships, it is important that both parties be willing participants who are committed to using the communication process for the good of each other and the relationship. This is where things often break down in relationships; one party or the other is simply not interested in putting forth the effort to achieve effective communication.
Another problem with communication in relationships is a lack of trust. Effective communication requires trust. If you don’t trust the sender of a message or that individual doesn’t trust you, the message won’t be trusted either. This is a common problem in broken relationships. Remove trust from communication and one party is left wondering what the other party isn’t saying or if what is being said is true. Remove trust and both parties will suspect nefarious motives behind the messages they receive. Communication without trust is like a house without a foundation. Trust is more important to communication than articulateness, erudition, vocabulary, perceptiveness, or any other factor. When trust is broken in a relationship, communication becomes difficult if not impossible.
Another communication problem I often hear about is an unwillingness to listen. Just as it is important that senders be wise in how they convey information, it is important that recipients commit to listening attentively. In fact, if asked to choose the most important component of effective communication other than trust, I would opt for attentive listening. Attentive listening means tuning in without jumping ahead, letting your mind wander, making assumptions, drawing premature conclusions, or adopting an I-don’t-want-to-hear-it attitude. Attentive listening is the kind of listening needed to build, maintain, and, when necessary, repair relationships. Unfortunately, attentive listening is often the missing ingredient when communication breaks down in a relationship.
Impatience and Boredom
In long-term relationships the partners sometimes get into a rut and become bored. The more bored they become the less patient they are with each other. I hear complaints about boredom and impatience all the time. A man I counseled told me that when he and his wife were first married, everything was new and exciting, but after ten years of marriage they had both grown bored. As a result of the boredom, they had also become grouchy and impatient with each other. Boredom-induced impatience is common in long-term relationships.
Patience is a willingness to forebear with equanimity the inconveniences, nuisances, vexations, irritations, annoyances, and discomforts of life. Boredom tends to magnify these things. Consequently, people in relationships who feel they are in a rut often respond to their boredom by becoming impatient with others. A woman I counseled told me her husband used to patiently overlook her little idiosyncrasies when they were first married but recently he “bites her head off ten times a day.” I have heard similar comments from a lot of people, most of them spouses, but not all of them. Boredom and impatience can intrude on any kind of relationship.
Even after more than 30 years of counseling, I am still surprised to find how unkind people in relationships can be to each other. Kindness in a relationship means being friendly, generous, considerate, caring, and encouraging. It also means being sincerely concerned for the best interests of the other person. Unkindness is a common complaint made by people in troubled relationships. You would think that people who care about each other enough to form a relationship would treat each other kindly. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Unkindness in relationships manifests itself in a variety of ways including verbal, physical, financial, or sexual abuse; betrayal of trust; mind games; using children as pawns in disagreements; abasement; social isolation; domination; aggressiveness (physical and verbal); neglect; and power games to name just a few ways. Here are some of the unkind things people I have counseled did to each other:
At a high-school reunion, a husband left his wife sitting alone while he spent the evening flirting with an old girlfriend. His wife went to a different high school. Hence, she knew no one at the reunion. She felt embarrassed, isolated, and humiliated.
A wife criticized her husband to a group of their friends while he looked on in sullen silence. She claimed he didn’t know how to dress for special occasions and was socially inept. Her husband was too humiliated to respond.
An older brother was helping his younger sister with her Math homework. When she struggled to grasp an Algebraic concept, he called her “stupid.” When she cried, he told her to “Stop acting like a little baby.”
Cathy and Cindy were best friends and team mates on their high-school volleyball team. After Cindy set her up for the perfect spike, Cathy scored the winning point in an important game. Later Cathy reveled in the adulation of the student body without acknowledging Cindy’s contribution to the win. Cindy felt like she had been slapped.
Linda was as happy as she had ever been when she showed her mother the engagement ring her fiancé had just given her. But her happiness was cut short when her mother responded, “If that little diamond is the best he can do, I don’t think you should marry him.” Linda’s joy evaporated in an instant.
After making a mess of trying to fix a plumbing problem, Matthew finally gave up and did what he should have done in the first place. He called a plumber. When the plumber arrived, Matthew’s wife made a point of telling him just how inept her husband was at household maintenance. She told the plumber, “He doesn’t even know which end of a hammer to use. When it comes to fixing things around the house, he is useless.” Matthew, who though inept mechanically, was a brilliant computer scientist could only mumble, “At least I earn enough to pay for a plumber.”
Selfishness means being so concerned for yourself that you have little or no regard for others. The unspoken motto of people who approach relationships from the perspective of selfishness is this: it’s all about me. Several of the reasons given in this article for why relationships go wrong including ice-cream love, impatience, unkindness, and faithlessness can be attributed at least in part to selfishness. Selfishness is like poor communication in that even when it isn’t the main factor in broken relationships it is often a contributing factor.
Here are some of the more common complaints about selfishness in relationships I have heard over the years:
He always has to be right. I might as well not venture an opinion, idea, or suggestion. His opinions, ideas, or suggestions are all that matter. The worst crime I can commit in our relationship is to say, “I disagree.”
She expects me to change to suit her needs, wants, and whims, but don’t ask her to change. With her, change is a one-way street.
His needs, desires, and preferences always come first. He insists on deciding what movies we watch, where we go on vacation, what we eat, whose parents we visit at Thanksgiving and Christmas, the kinds of cars we buy, and so on. If I put my foot down and insist, he might go along but only reluctantly and with a lot of pouting and complaining.
She is a micromanaging “control freak.” No matter what has to be done, she has to be in charge. In her mind, it’s not enough to do the chores properly and in a timely manner; they have to be done her way. Worse yet, she hovers over me to make sure I am doing things her way.
My spouse gets jealous if I receive recognition. It’s as if he is competing with me. I want him to be happy for me, but instead he becomes sullen when I receive an award, raise, or promotion. Why can’t he be happy for me and for us?
She takes me for granted. Because she is convinced I will never leave her or even challenge her decisions or behavior she does what she wants and expects me to just put up with it.
He hoards money and hides it from me. Any time he wants new clothes or some new man toy, he buys it. But if I want to buy something, he is quick to say “we can’t afford it.”
One of the most devastating causes of broken relationships is unfaithfulness, often referred to as infidelity or cheating. Infidelity in a relationship is a betrayal of trust on steroids. In my experience, relationships broken by infidelity leave the deepest scars and, as a result, are the most difficult to repair. We typically think of infidelity as one spouse or partner in a relationship engaging in an adulterous affair. Physically cheating with another person is certainly the ultimate form of infidelity in the minds of most people, but it’s not the only form.
More and more often I am hearing about cyber-cheating: people indulging in cyber-sex or watching pornography on the Internet. Pornography and cyber-sex have become huge problems among Christians and unbelievers alike. Internet pornography is now a $15 billion industry that is wreaking havoc on relationships worldwide, and this is a conservative estimate of its size. Because it is difficult to detect, people are watching pornography in the workplace, on home computers, and even on cell phones. I once had to fire a faculty member for watching pornography on his lap-top computer during classes he was supposed to be teaching.
Another form of unfaithfulness in relationships is emotional infidelity. This manifestation of infidelity involves sharing your most intimate thoughts, dreams, ambitions, fears, desires, and needs with someone other than your spouse or closest partner. We are typically reluctant to pull the curtain back on our inner selves with anyone but the person we trust most. Consequently, emotional infidelity is a betrayal of that person. To the person betrayed, emotional infidelity says, “You aren’t the most important person in my life.”
Regardless of the form it takes, infidelity in relationships is devastating to the partner who is betrayed. Men who are the victims of infidelity typically feel emasculated. As one man whose wife cheated on him told me, “Her affair meant I’m not good enough for her—I don’t satisfy her. It makes me feel insufficient—like I’m not a man.” Women often view infidelity as a sign that their husbands or partners don’t love them. They typically want to know if their unfaithful husbands love the individual they cheated with.
Some people who are the victims of infidelity never recover and, as a result, are unable to repair and resume the relationship. I have heard the following comment or versions of it from men and women alike whose spouses cheated on them: “I just can’t get the image of him (her) with that other person out of my mind.” Infidelity often leaves the victim unable to enter into trusting relationships with anyone.
Lack of humility
A missing ingredient in a lot of troubled relationships is humility. One of the reasons for this is we have been conditioned by a self-aggrandizing culture to define humility as viewing ourselves as lowly and unworthy. This misguided view of humility often leads people to become self-promoting, self-centered braggarts. Being humble does not mean you are lowly or unworthy, nor does it require engaging in self-flagellation and self-denunciation. While we are certainly lowly and unworthy when compared with God, we are not when compared with each other.
Humility means you are confident enough in yourself as a child of God that you don’t have to indulge in self-aggrandizing behaviors. Because you have the confidence that comes with being a child of God, you are able to put others before yourself. This is why a lack of humility is often the fly in the ointment when it comes to relationship problems. People who lack humility aren’t likely to put the needs of their spouses or friends ahead of their own. This leaves the other party in their relationships feeling marginalized, unimportant, and insecure.
Lack of commitment
When he approached me for counseling, the man was clearly distraught. The first words he said to me were, “My wife is a fighter. She will fight for better schools, cleaner water, help for the homeless, and to save the whales. She will fight for almost any good cause. I wish she would fight as hard for our marriage. Our relationship is one thing she seems unwilling to fight for.” Clearly, this man doubted his wife’s commitment to their marriage.
Commitment is a steadfast determination to make something succeed. Being committed in a relationship means you are willing to put forth the effort necessary to make the relationship work, to persevere in good times and bad. People who are committed to a relationship don’t give up on it at the first sign of trouble. When you are committed to a relationship, it is a top priority in your life.
People who lack commitment always seem to have one foot in the door and one foot out when it comes to their relationships. Their attitude toward the relationship is the opposite of the words most couples include in their marriage vows: “I promise to love and cherish you in good times and bad, in sickness and in health.” Those who lack commitment, if truthful, should have said, “I promise to love and cherish you as long as times are good and as long as you stay healthy.” Few things can make you more insecure in a relationship than a partner who lacks commitment.
Lack of forgiveness
“Every time we have a disagreement, she dredges up old complaints about things that happened years ago. She claims to forgive, but doesn’t.” “He loves to bring up mistakes I made in the past and rub my nose in them. He doesn’t have an ounce of forgiveness in him.” I have heard versions of these comments hundreds of times over the years. Often the missing ingredient in turbulent relationships is forgiveness. This is unfortunate because forgiveness can be the most important factor in getting derailed relationships back on track. In fact, a broken relationship cannot be repaired and restored without forgiveness. In my experience, forgiveness is an essential ingredient in maintaining happy, fulfilling relationships.
One of the reasons people in relationships struggle with forgiveness is they don’t understand what it means. Many people view forgiveness as granting absolution or a pardon to those who have wronged them. They equate forgiving with pronouncing a not-guilty verdict. This point of view is not just misguided, it is wrong. If the party in question were not guilty of some transgression, he or she wouldn’t need to be forgiven. Consequently, forgiving someone who wronged you does not mean telling them they did nothing wrong.
Your forgiveness does not absolve wrong-doers of guilt or excuse their behavior. Nor does it mean condoning what they did. Rather, it means responding to their repentance and remorse by intentionally and consciously deciding to put aside feelings of resentment or revenge; something many people have trouble doing. Nevertheless, you can no more repair a fractured relationship without forgiveness than you can cure a fractured bone without a cast. I often have to remind people who refuse to forgive a repentant loved one that the time will come when they will need forgiveness, and those who refuse to forgive aren’t likely to be forgiven.
ROOT CAUSE OF TROUBLED AND FAILED RELATIONSHIPS
Now that I have gone through the secondary causes of troubled and failed relationships, let me close with what I believe is the root cause. Human relationships that go awry do so because they are built on a foundation of self rather than a foundation of God. Only when God is the cornerstone of your relationships do they have a chance to blossom, reach their full potential, and last. As the old Gospel song states, any other foundation is “sinking sand.”
When you build a relationship on God, your goal is to please Him not yourself. How do you please God in relationships? The answer to this question can be found in Ephesians 4:32 where we read: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ Forgave you.” In relationships, treat the other parties as Christ treats you. Do this and your relationships will prosper and last.
Dr. Goetsch is the author of Veteran’s Lament: Is This the America We Fought For? and Christian Women on the Job: Excelling at Work without Compromising Your Faith, Fidelis Books, an imprint of Post Hill Press.