Unhealthy Relationship Dynamics: 4 Tips for Couples

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Big Leap" by Gay Hendricks. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the main causes of friction between couples? What are some examples of toxic relationship dynamics?

Couples may sometimes get stuck in unhealthy relationship dynamics, picking fights, communicating poorly, and engaging in power struggles. While each of these behaviors may be instigated by one partner, they all clearly take two people to create a cycle of conflict.

Here’s how to put an end to this cycle before it escalates.

Tips for a Healthy Relationship

We’re not evolutionarily built for deep, loving relationships—we’re evolved to meet basic needs and reproduce. This means that we naturally feel uncomfortable when we experience intensely positive emotions in relationships. As a result, we often subconsciously sabotage our romantic relationships by picking fights, keeping a score, and perpetuating dysfunctional communication patterns.

To prevent and fix these unhealthy relationship dynamics, Hendriks recommends a few strategies:

1. Both partners should regularly take alone time to recharge and reconnect with themselves. When we’re in a relationship, we need to maintain our sense of individuality and independence; when we don’t have this, Hendricks says that we will tend to create conflict to force that distance and avoid intimacy. So if both partners voluntarily take time away for themselves, they’ll be less likely to force that distance in unhealthy ways. Hendricks advises that any time you experience a high level of intimacy or happiness in your relationship, take a bit of time to do something “grounding” (connect with the earth in some way), in order to avoid falling into the pattern of bringing yourself and your relationship back down in an unhealthy

2. Both partners should commit to cultivating better communication skills. This involves practicing speaking openly and honestly about your feelings. Both partners need to allow all feelings to be expressed, without trying to suppress or avoid them in themselves or the other person.

3. Partners should remember to regularly show non-sexual physical affection to one another. This is just as important as sexual affection. 

4. Hendricks advises creating a support network with a few friends, who would be willing to work together with you on the happiness threshold problems. You can support one another and hold one another accountable.

Attachment Style Conflicts

Beyond the type of relationship sabotage that Hendricks discusses, attachment styles may also be affecting your relationship. Research on attachment styles explains some problematic relationship dynamics. For example, people with anxious or avoidant attachment styles may be more likely to sabotage their relationships, because of the fears triggered by intimacy. An avoidant attachment style, in particular, may explain a partner tending to pull away after an emotionally intense period, even if it’s intensely positive. People who did not experience deep love and affection as children can feel uncomfortable with that in romantic relationships, because it’s unfamiliar territory. Therefore, a pattern of conflict happening just when things are at their best is consistent with an unhealthy attachment style.  

How to deal with attachment style conflicts in relationships involves understanding both of your attachment styles. If both you and your partner are aware of the tendencies and triggers of the other’s attachment style, you’ll be better equipped to respond well. The advice for partners to withdraw and have alone time after an intensely positive period may be right for those with avoidant attachment styles, but not necessarily for those with an anxious attachment style. 

You can take a quiz to discover your attachment style here
Unhealthy Relationship Dynamics: 4 Tips for Couples

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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