5 Ways To Step Out Of Your Dysfunctional Relationship


By Dr. Bonnie Ray Kennan, MFT


We all have predictable ways of behaving in relationships. Couples have the same fight over and over again.  For that matter, they have the same kinds of healthy interactions too. Communication behavior is patterned. When it is patterned in the healthy direction, you create a healthy relationship. Today I want to talk about when it is not and how to take a step out of it.



Like any bad habit, the first time you reverse it, it will feel strange and uncomfortable. That is great news! It means you are making progress. You a beginning to break the destructive, negative cycle and start a new healthy and positive new one.



But how? First, you identify how you are contributing to the destruction of your relationship.


According to family therapist Terry Real, there are five predictable “losing relationship strategies” we must become highly attuned to. When your notice which one you tend to do, I challenge you to take a tiny step in the other direction.



Five Losing Strategies.


1) Needing to be right. This unfortunate strategy turns your relationship into a courtroom in which there is an ongoing presentation of evidence. When two people simply want to feel close, connected, and loved, they are spouting propositions and citing evidence in a manner that rivals any college debating society. That is admirable in other contexts, but in this one it leaves you lonely, empty, frustrated, and disconnected. How to step out: Stop debating for a minute. Say “you might be right, I never thought of it that way.” See what happens.



2) Controlling your partner. Control can be direct as in begging, pleading, haranguing. Or it can be indirect as in subtle manipulation. Either way, the result is the same. Nobody likes to be controlled. Yet many partners employ a variety of strategies, one after another, to get their partner to behave as they think they should. Sometimes it works in the short run, but in the long run, people keep score and payback is inevitable. Ex: Sally mounts an all out campaign to get George to agree to go to her parent’s house for Thanksgiving—again. To stop her pushing, he agrees, but silently thinks to himself “okay, but I will be so miserable that I will reward myself by golfing with my friends every Sunday.” Sally can’t quite figure out why George is suddenly unavailable for family time on weekends. How to step out: Negotiate for what you want. Use your words.



3) Withdrawal. One sure fire way of losing is to run from the problem, to simply hide behind a big thick wall of protection. This patterned response comes becomes an automatic response to relational stress and it pulls your partner into a pursuing role. If your default is to withdraw from the relationship when it gets tough, your job is to take a step into your relationship. You be the one to say “honey, we need to talk.” You can put the pursuer in your life (ie., nagging partner) out of business by daring to come out from behind your wall of protection and taking a relationship risk.



4) Retaliation. For some of us, the first reaction to a relationship injury is “after what you did to me, I deserve to make you hurt.” Retaliation is a convoluted system of justice or personal payback. Another way to look at this losing strategy is “offending from the victim position.” Bad strategy. Instead of retaliating, take a moment to get quiet, take a breath, and let it go. Use the energy for problem solving and reflection rather than getting even.



5) Unbridled Self-Expression. This is my favorite losing strategy because, as a mental health professional, I believe we have contributed to this problem. We have unwittingly led people to this barf bag approach to relationship. People erroneously assume that they will feel closer and more connected to their partner after they have unburdened themselves, “let it all out,” expressed themselves in an unbridled fashion. If this is your default strategy, step back and consider the impact your boundaryless self expression has on your partner. Express yourself moderately. If the thing you want to say will hurt, leave it out.


The first step is to identify which strategies you tend to employ. As you read this you most likely smiled when you read one or two of them. Next time you are on automatic pilot, when every part of you wants to react in the same old way, make a different move. Step out of your dysfunctional dance. Today.