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Why Relationships Fail: The Roots of Blame

            One of the biggest reasons people often are reluctant to seek relationship counseling is their fear of experiencing blame for their part in the failure of the relationship.  We know that in relationships where people mean well – and most relationships fall into that category – there is almost never one person completely responsible for the pain and destructive communication occurring between two or more people.  Whether it is 50-50 or 20-80, if we could put percentage points on whomever contributes to failure in the relationship, we would still be left with the need for each person to recognize and take responsibility for their part.  The first challenge in the relationship counseling setting is to remove the sense of shame by removing the need to blame.

Relationship as a Trap

            Virtually all of us have lived in or observed relationships that begin with open sharing and the development of deep affection, only to face the helpless confusion and growing despair as something once so beautiful increasingly becomes a painful trap of seemingly endless conflict.  Eventually, the anger and resentment grow to such a level that we are so consumed with our issues that we can no longer hear the other person. Any attempt by one partner to repair communication becomes suspect by the other.  The combined feelings of love and hate, good times and bad times, interlock tightly in a scenario seemingly with no end in sight. The relationship is experienced by one or both partners as a trap – and indeed it is.   

            We live in a society where shattered relationships, divorce and broken families are the norm. Researchers talk of the emergence of serial polygamy, in which folks go through multiple marriages, one-at-a-time, in their endlessly painful efforts to just get it right.  Children, scattered in the wake of these relationships, grow up to be cynical about commitment and intimacy.  As a result, they choose the uncommitted single life, or repeat the serial pattern they lived through with their parents.  Over a lifetime, the sense of shame, helplessness and despair to make things right continues to grow. And always, always, there are those who dispense their judgments – only adding to the sense of shame in those who appear helpless to extricate themselves from this seemingly endless pattern.  And I never cease to stand in awe at the courage of these brave souls who keep trying.

            The first step to end the shame is to remove the blame.

Removing the Blame

            The source behind painful, destructive, and dysfunctional behavior is ignorance. I know, we all hate to be thought ignorant, but all of us are – to varying degrees – ignorant. Ignorance simply defines the boundary beyond what we know.  There is no sin in ignorance – only in embracing it.  When we close our minds off to new possibilities, to deeper levels of learning, to better ways of doing things, we are embracing ignorance.  And we are a society that, in many ways, embraces ignorance.

            I have lost track of the number of times I have told clients, “You’re not going crazy, our society is! You are simply in the big rocking boat with the rest of us.”  I go on to emphasize the most undeniable example of our dysfunctional society is to be found in our education system, for here there is a failure that goes far beyond the generally recognized under funding and lack of infrastructure support that drives away thousands of our most talented educators. While not enough of us are speaking up, I suspect most of us recognize the craziness of cutting funding for the arts and language studies in education, in preference to greater (but still not enough) funding for technology and science, not including social sciences.  This gives us a clue to the ultimate failure of our education system, both as to the source of why “society is going crazy” and why relationships fail.

Relationships: The 4th "R" 

            The stated purpose of going to school, cited to our children from our nation’s beginnings, is to “learn the three R’s: reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.”  Yet, there is a “fourth R” that is even more important than the other three “R’s” put together.  The fourth R is not taught in school, even though it has been refined to the degree of being a science in and of itself.  That fourth R is Relationships.  While we can’t hold our ancestors accountable for their ignorance, we are long overdue to recognize and take advantage of the advances of the psychological and social sciences over the past century. 

            The discipline of relationships should be taught as required curriculum from kindergarten through graduate school. It is a discipline, the substance of which holds all other disciplines together, yet a student must go to graduate school in psychology, counseling, social work, or some applied tangential area like public relations or marketing to receive any significant education in the discipline of relationships. Only a small percentage of us actually continue to use our once-mandatory learning of factoring quadratic equations, or defining transitive versus intransitive verbs. However, all of us must negotiate the challenges of relationships on a daily basis – unless we live as a hermit.   

            So, what do we have in the absence of formal education in relationships? We have the chaos we see daily in the relationships that largely define our lives.  Our only recourse in beginning a marriage and building a family is to fall back on what we learned growing up in our families – such as they were.  Generation after generation, we are subject to making the same mistakes as our forebears, simply because nobody was there to teach us a better way to communicate and build relationships.

"Best-Guessing" at Relationships 

            We would not think of throwing our child the car keys on her 15th birthday, telling her to go out and try driving in traffic, hoping she’ll make it back for her party. We have driver’s education classes for that.  She may get lessons for dancing – even learning to ski. But in our education system, there are no lessons for creating and sustaining functional relationships! When almost everybody is approaching this challenging endeavor with nothing more than their “best guess” at every point along the way, it’s no small wonder that we have so many divorces and broken homes in American society.   

            It is destructive and useless to blame those who do the best with what they have – especially when they have little. 

            When viewed from this perspective, it becomes clear that a fortunate minority are learning on their own from their mistakes, while the majority could benefit by receiving the fourth R education in relationship-building that would allow them to finally get it right.  There is no recourse other than to learn the relationship skills necessary to maintain a successful relationship.  Regardless of our age or stage of life, we must courageously take our own inventory of our relationship skills, and then follow a plan that will bring us and our loved ones what we need.

Learning Relationship Skills

            There are many self-help books dedicated to developing relationship skills, some of which focus on specific themes, like assertiveness training, courtship, addiction issues, social anxiety and divorce recovery, to name a few.  Increasingly, there are classes and seminars on these topics.  It is important that any approach to relationship skills development must include hands-on exercises in communication, including active listening skills and conflict resolution.  Like learning to drive or play a musical instrument, supervised practice is essential.  Probably the most valuable and meaningful wedding gift is the financing of premarital counseling, for it can do more to ensure a happily-ever-after than the finest gold or silver.

            Especially in situations where significant relationship damage has already been done, professional counseling is an essential avenue because it facilitates healing and insight-building along with carefully monitored skills development. When a relationship is failing, it becomes essential for a couple or family to enter a learning and healing environment where the persons involved can learn and take responsibility for their unique contributions to whatever is harming the relationship. As relationship skills develop, old destructive ways of communicating fall away. 

            Successful counseling does not always save a relationship.  Sometimes, too much has changed or too much damage has been done in the eyes of one or both partners. As a result of the process, at least each has learned their contribution to why the relationship did not work – and hopefully has learned new ways that will be of benefit in the next relationship.  The alternative is to go from one relationship to the next, never learning and always repeating the same patterns that contributed to destroy the previous relationships – something in which we all have observed, if not participated.

Next: Courtship: Laying the Foundations of a Marital Relationship 

Granville Angell (copyright 02/2006)

Granville Angell, EdS, LPC, NCC is a licensed professional counselor with 30 years experience.  His private practice, TRANSITIONS Personal & Family Counseling Services (www.transitions-counseling.com), includes a specialized sub-practice focusing on holistic, intuition-enhanced counseling and clinical hypnotherapy, called SoulMentors. He may be reached at 704-735-1554 or 704-276-1164. 

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