4 Behaviors That Destroy Relationships

If you can’t love your enemies, at least be polite to your friends.

It doesn’t matter if you’re working with someone or married to someone, relationships on and off the job can be difficult. They’re difficult if you engage in certain destructive behavior. And they’re especially difficult if you don’t have enough relationship skills.

Men and women, for example, often use vastly different styles of communication. Both styles have tremendous value, and both styles are necessary. But when males and females try to work together or live together, the style differences can easily lead to problems instead of problem solving.

Just look at language usage. Women tend to use “hint” language while men tend to use “literal” language. Video-taped research has shown that women often use a question at the end of a sentence. A woman might say, “It’s cold in here, isn’t it?” What she is saying is, “Turn up the heat.”

The man doesn’t get the hint. It’s not his language. He takes her literally and says, “No.” If this goes on long enough, she might complain, “He never does what I ask him to do.” He replies by saying, “Just tell me what you want,” to which she replies, “I’ve been telling you for 30 years, haven’t I?”

Look also at communication purpose. Men use communication to report a fact while women use communication to build rapport. That’s why one person said women are so much more romantic than men. It comes naturally to them. Men, on the other hand, forget to do romantic things — like talk.

Then look at the style differences when problems arise. Most men want to win or conquer. So when problems arise, about 50% of men keep things inside. They don’t talk to anyone because that would make them vulnerable. That would make them less likely to “win.”

Most women, on the other hand, use a different style when problems arise. They want to cooperate and relate. 94% of women go to someone when problems arise. They want to talk it through, usually with other women. It’s like the time two women were asking about the suitability of certain men for marriage. They decided men who have pierced ears are better prepared for marriage. They’ve experienced pain and bought jewelry.

One woman wrote Dear Abby. She wrote: “Dear Abby: My husband and I are slowly drifting apart. Is there any way I can speed up the process?”

The answer is “Yes.” I’ve found four destructive behaviors that will destroy almost any relationship. If you WITHDRAW, BELITTLE, ESCALATE, OR IMAGINE, you’re headed for trouble.

If, on the other hand, you want happy, healthy relationships, you’ve got to make sure you don’t engage in any of these behaviors. You’ve got to refrain from “the destructive four.”

You CANNOT WITHDRAW. In other words, when times are tough, you cannot clam up or refuse to talk about it. According to research by Dr. Gary Chapman, 85% of failed relationships show a lack of communication. The people didn’t talk or couldn’t talk, so they grew further apart.

There’s some indication that men are more likely to withdraw than women. As one female comedian said, men are like remote controls. She said, “Think about it. They’re made for men. They’re ‘remote.’ They don’t get too close. And they’re in ‘control,’ or at least, they think they are.”

You also cannot withdraw when times are good. If you’re in a love relationship, you’ve got to talk about your feelings. And that’s difficult. A lot of people talk about love but don’t feel it. And a lot of people feel it but don’t talk about it.

As poet laureate John Barrymore said, “We are as sick as we are secret.” Healthy relationships have lots of communication, and most everything is out in the open. Sick relationships have too much withdrawal and too many secrets.

A sick relationship may be like the one the Anderson’s had. Mrs. Anderson came up behind her husband and slapped the back of his head. She said, “I found a piece of paper in your pants pocket with the name ‘Mary Lou’ written on it. You’d better have an explanation.”

Mr. Anderson replied, “Calm down, honey. Remember last week when I was at the horse track? That was the name of the horse I bet on.”

The next morning Mrs. Anderson sneaked up behind her husband and whacked him again. The husband immediately complained, “What was that for?” She said, “Your horse called last night.”

So you cannot withdraw, and you cannot BELITTLE. You can’t put the other person down. You can’t decimate his or her self-esteem. Such behavior, according to author Dr. Gary Chapman, is the number one cause of divorce.

It’s like the woman who was waiting for a diagnosis of her husband’s illness. The doctor came to her with a dour expression and said, “I don’t like the look of him.”

The man’s wife said, “I don’t either, but he’s good to the children.”

Such belittling destroys the stability of any relationship. That’s what Shirley Rogers Reinhart found out. She and her husband were at their daughter’s volleyball game when they noticed an adult couple in the bleachers being very affectionate. The woman kept running her hands down the man’s arms and massaging his shoulders and neck while kissing his ear.

Shirley said, “I don’t know if I should watch them or the game.” Her husband replied, “Watch them. You already know how to play volleyball.”

Cute? Yes. Dangerous? Possibly. Taken the wrong way, the wife could feel belittled, and that never builds a relationship.

Instead of belittling, offer words of appreciation. Everyone has qualities that can be appreciated. An old Arabic saying suggests that a real friend is one who blows away the chaff and nourishes the seed which remains.

In other words, everyone has some chaff in him, some unlikable quality. But when you appreciate someone, you overlook the unlikable qualities. You notice the great things in him or her and comment on that.

So don’t withdraw and belittle. And DO NOT ESCALATE. When you’re having an argument, no matter how much you are tempted to say hurtful things, you cannot and should not do so if you want that happy, healthy relationship. You cannot retaliate.

That’s difficult. I’m sure we’ve all been in arguments where we’re about to lose our cool. Every bit of our previous training has taught us to shut up, but ooh, we just want this one time to say something nasty. We think it would feel so good to get back or get even.

Don’t do it! Don’t say it! One hurtful comment almost always leads to another and another. In the midst of an argument, one woman said, “Sure Moses was lost in the wilderness for years. That’s just like a man. He wouldn’t ask for directions.” To which her husband responded, “How can you say such things to me and also say you love me? If you really loved me, you would have married someone else.” Obviously, escalating comments such as these hurt relationships.

If you say hurtful things, let me suggest that you apologize as quickly as possible. Dan Heist says, “When you realize you’ve made a mistake, make amends immediately. It’s easier to eat crow while it’s still warm.”

Of course, there’s a catch. Even if you apologize, it doesn’t totally erase the hurtful comment. The other person will always remember what you said and will always wonder how much of it you really meant. It’s better to not say the hurtful comment in the first place.

Finally, DO NOT IMAGINE. When relationships are going sour, it’s easy to see more negative things about the other person than are actually there. This is an extremely dangerous place to be. In fact it’s often the last phase in a personal or professional relationship.

What happens during this phase is the establishment of a negative filter. One or both partners conclude that the other person is bad, worthless, or no good. This conclusion serves as a filter. No matter what the other person does in the future, it is seen through this filter. It’s all going to be interpreted negatively.

You’ve got to forget the negative imaginations. You’ve got to be humble enough to admit you don’t know the whole truth. You only see it from your perspective. And you’ve got to keep on listening with an open mind and a discerning heart. People can change, and people do change. So leave a little room for that possibility if you want to preserve or build a relationship.

Relationships are more a matter of skill than chance. If you avoid the destructive four – withdrawing, belittling, escalating, and imagining — you will have more positive, productive relationships.

Action:  Take an inventory of your relationship behaviors. Rank withdrawing, belittling, escalating, and imagining from 1 to 4. Number 1 is the behavior you use most frequently. Number 4 is the one you use the least.  Take your number 1 item. The next time you’re about to slip into that behavior, catch yourself. Stop yourself. You won’t regret it, and it will help your relationship.