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WHEN RELATIONSHIPS BREAK DOWN

What do we do when our relationship with someone quits working?  If that someone is close to us or important to us, we cannot very well just forget about it, ignore him, or pretend there is no problem.  Teenagers cannot completely avoid their parents; parents cannot just ignore their children.  Husbands and wives cannot simply avoid all contact with each other.  Neighbors and co-workers probably cannot cut off all communication.  Bad relationships cannot be avoided or ignored in the hope that they will “just go away” by themselves.  Willingly or unwillingly, we have to deal with the problem in some way.  There are, of course, many styles or patterns of coping with severely conflicted relationships.  Some people deal with the problem by yelling.  They are experiencing intense and uncomfortable feelings, and they try to force other people into compliance, giving in, changing their behavior, feeling differently, or otherwise acting like they want them to.  If you would just straighten up, act your age, not be so unreasonable, behave differently, love me, forget about the past, be more optimistic, not always be nagging, come home earlier, and so on; if you would just change, our relationship would be okay.  The yellers attempt to have their way by throwing temper tantrums, threatening, accusing, or otherwise badgering the other individual into changing.

Other people deal with unhappy relationships by falling into the role of the pouter or “stiff upper lipper.”  Since things are not going the way they want them to go, they withdraw, refuse to communicate, are unhappy, make everyone else miserable, refuse to interact, and are usually “pouting” like small children.  They feel that they have been abused, taken advantage of, and that their feelings are not being recognized or responded to.  If things do not work out after a while, they stop pouting and take a stiff-upper-lip attitude toward the problem.  They will go through the motions but no longer be involved in the relationship.  They will fulfill their responsibilities and carry out their duties.  They will behave as if everything is fine but will remain emotionally detached from the relationship.  In extreme situations, they will play the role of the martyr and feel that they are making a great sacrifice for the sake of the relationship.  In other situations, individuals may decide to terminate the relationship through divorce, suicide, running away, firing a good employee, quitting a good job, moving away, and so on.  Other people simply attempt to avoid bad relationships by going out of their way to keep from seeing their former friends.  Couples continue to live together but “go their separate ways.”  Parents just “give up” on children and let them have their own way, and so on.  The yellers, pouters, stiff upper lippers, and quitters are all, in their own ways, trying to deal with severely disturbed relationships.

Perhaps as common as these coping styles are efforts to unwind, unravel, and figure out relationships that are approaching the point of no return.  Parents having difficulties with teenage children will attempt to understand how the problem got started when the children were little.  They will go over incidents, events, and episodes they feel contributed to the present difficulty.  Similarly, couples will look over the years of their marriages trying to find out just where things went wrong.  This usually does lead to some level of understanding with the resulting belief that, “if we had it to do over again, we would do things quite differently.  Then things would be better now.”  The people in the relationship focus on “what went wrong” and agree to avoid that specific problem in the future.  Things go fairly well for a while, but then the relationship begins to deteriorate again.  Either the same problems occur or new problems come up.  Their efforts to repair or “fix” their relationship have not been very successful.  Sometimes, of course, this fixing or repairing process is effective.  In severely conflicted or extremely deteriorated relationships, however, a small adjustment, a quick repair job, a little fixing is usually unsuccessful.  It is a little bit like cooking stew.  Sometimes the stew may need a little more salt or a little stir.  That works quite nicely when the stew had few problems to begin with.  Really bad relationships, though, are like stews made with the wrong ingredients or burned in the process of cooking.  A little fixing or a few quick repairs will not help very much.

The reality is that bad relationships, especially when they are close or important relationships, cannot be fixed.  They are nonrepairable.  This is particularly true of relationships between parents and children, close friends, and husbands and wives.  Recall the way relationships develop.  First, consider two people who do not know each other.  What kinds of things must happen to move them from where they do not know each other to where they have a close relationship?  The development of a relationship is a complicated and complex process involving many things.  As a foundation or first step, individuals must recognize and remember each other.  Of the people you have met, how many of their names do you remember?  How many would you recognize if you saw them today?  Next, how many would recognize and remember you?  Thus, people need at least to recognize and remember you?  Thus, people need at least to recognize and remember each other before they can develop a close and important relationship.  This point of recognizing and remembering each other can be thought of as point one.  From point one, hundreds and thousands of little points must be reached if the relationship is to develop and grow.  At each of those points, certain ideas, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, perceptions, notions, attitudes, assumptions get into the relationship.  These may be thought of as small elements or bits that go to make up the relationship.  Children learn about their parents’ past lives, their personalities, what is acceptable and not acceptable in a relationship, and parents learn about an equally wide variety of things about their children.  Friends first meet, recognize, and remember each other and then go through a continuing process of adding little bits to their relationship.  The same kind of process goes on between employers and employees, co-workers, neighbors, relatives, and so on through the whole range of significant and important relationships.  Relationships come from a growing/developing process that progresses bit by bit.

In relationships between parents and children an important point is relatively easy to see.  Just as little bits are continually being added to the relationship, both parents and children are growing and becoming.  If we see that along with the process of adding bits to the relationship both people are growing and becoming, we can see that some bits are always being dropped out or omitted from the relationship.  As a simple example, when Lee was a baby, his mother had a “bit” in their relationship saying that Lee is unable to walk and needs to be carried.  As part of their relationship, then, his mother carried Lee when they needed to go somewhere.  As he got older, however, the “Lee-needs-to-be-carried” bit was dropped, and his mother no longer carried him.  When Lee was three, he had a bit in his relationship with his mother that said she would help him pick up his toys.  He wanted to keep that bit in their relationship, but by the time he was five, his mother had dropped that bit and had put in a bit saying that Lee was old enough to pick up his own toys.  When Lee was five, he thought Dad could make anything work out and fix everything.  Over time, however, Lee’s relationship with his dad changed, and Lee replaced the old bit with a new one that said that Dad has limitations, too.  As Mom and Dad watched Lee grow, however, they were also growing and changing.  Just as in their relationship with Lee they were always adding and tossing out bits, in their relationship with each other the same kind of process was taking place.

As a matter fact, it is not difficult to make the generalization that any close and important relationship is always changing and growing.  People say, “Things aren’t like they used to be between us.”  You say, “That’s normal and healthy.  If things were the same as they used to be, that would mean that your relationship has stagnated and is not a viable, living thing.”  To borrow a term from the palm readers, this growing, developing, maturing becoming, living process within relationships can be thought of as a relationship’s lifeline.  It moves, sometimes evenly, sometimes unevenly, but it keeps moving.  If it stops, the relationship is, for all purposes, dead.  The people may continue living together, they may continue interacting from time to time, they may continue going through the motions.  The vital, living relationship is, however, gone.

As we continue our focus on the fact that severely deteriorated relationships are nonrepairable, think about the fact that the two individuals in the relationship are also growing and becoming.  They each have a lifeline of their own.  The notion of a meaningful relationship is becoming more complex.  The relationship has its lifeline, and equally important, both individuals have their separate lifelines.  Their lives touch each other’s; they are concerned with and are about each other; they are involved in an ongoing relationship.  Nevertheless, the two individuals are also in pursuit of their own lives.

Both people are continually involved with and care about the lifeline of their relationship.  At the same time, their humanness and inherent nature press them toward the pursuit of their lifelines.  As this life process continues, the individuals have started at “point one”—they have recognized and remembered each other.  From that point on, they continue adding and dropping “bits” into and out of their relationship.  Perhaps most of the bits they added and dropped were the same, and were added and dropped at the same time.  Inevitably, however, some bits were different, and the timing was not always the same.  Both individuals put in and took out some bits different from those put in and taken out by the other person.  The result is that the relationship is not made of the same bits for both people.  They do not both have exactly the same feelings, ideas, notions, perceptions, attitudes, likes, dislikes, disappointments, and so on, in reference to their relationship.  This process of adding and dropping bits may be thought of as the building process.

Just as the relationship has its building process—the adding and dropping of bits over a period of time—each individual has his or her own personal building process.  They have specific notions about themselves: attitudes, beliefs, feelings, prejudices, biases; thoughts about how their future will be; expectations for themselves; interests, likes, and dislikes; and so on.  As the two individuals grow and become, they have their individual process of deciding who they are, who they want to be, how they ought to be, why they are, and so on.  They are separate and distinct individuals.  Just as they each have their own life process and their relationship has its life process, they each have their own building process and their relationship has it building process.

The nearly incomprehensible complexity of relationships does not stop here, however.  In the discussion of crisis communication, it was seen that “messages” within crisis communication have both content and feeling associated with them.  Bits within close and important relationships have a similar quality.  Each bit has a meaning and value associated with it.  A husband may have a bit in his relationship with his wife saying that she is a fair housekeeper.  So long as the house does not get into too much of a mess, he may not place very much value on neat and tidy houses.  His bit about her housekeeping, then, also has a value that says her being a “fair housekeeper” is fine with him.  She may have a bit that says he is too serious and has a poor sense of humor.  She may place a very high value on a good sense of humor and thus feels bad about his being too serious.

The examples could be continued to include any bit in the relationship.  The point is, though, that every bit in the relationship has both a meaning and a value attached to it.  Parents and children may both have a bit in their relationship that says “school is necessary.”  The parents may place a very high value on school, while the children may see it as less important.  This value difference is then a source of conflict in their relationship.  They agree that it is important.  The disagreement is in terms of “how important.”  A mother and her teenage daughter may both agree that the daughter’s room should be clean.  They may have considerable disagreement, however, over the meaning of clean.  The mother thinks that “clean” means that everything should be put away and in its place.  The daughter feels that “clean” means that the dust should be wiped off enough so that she cannot write her name on the top of her dresser.  In any relationship, the meaning and value place on the bits in that relationship are a potential source of conflict.

In addition to the meaning/valuing process within the relationship, both individuals have their own persona meaning/valuing process.  They have their own sense of should and shouldn’t, right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, appropriate and inappropriate, important and unimportant, and so on.  They each have their life process, their building process, and their meaning/valuing process outside of their relationship.  These three dimensions are also an integral part of the relationship itself.

A fourth process within the growing and becoming of relationships completes the overwhelming complexity of ongoing, ongrowing relationships.  This fourth process relates to how the individuals put the bits together.  Suppose they are sixteen and growing an important relationship between themselves.  It is important to each of them that they put the relationship together in a loving and caring way.  With sixteen-year-olds, it can be seen that each probably has his or her own notions about how the relationship should be put together.  This can be called the “blueprint” process.  The blueprint process tells the teenagers how their relationship should be put together, what comes before what, and how the relationship should look at each stage.  Both teenagers have some notion about what kinds of things are and are not acceptable in the relationship; and what different kinds of ideas, feelings, actions, activities, and so on should look like in relation to and in proportion to each other.  With husbands and wives, the blueprint process shows how a good relationship would look if they were to achieve one.  With friends, the blueprint process has to do with “how we would know a friend if we had one.”  At a conceptual level, the blueprint process is the organizing, integrating principle within close and important relationships.  Of course, along with the blueprint process for his significant and meaningful relationships, each individual has a what, and where he is; where he is going; why he is going there, and so on.  This blueprint process gives meaning and direction to each of his life processes.  Similarly, the blueprint process gives meaning and direction to the life process of his relationships.

At the center of a close and important relationship, then, is the life process of that relationship.  The building process gives content and substance to the relationship.  The meaning/valuing process adds depth and character to the relationship.  Finally, the blueprint process gives structure and direction.  As the relationship grows, each person in the relationship is involved in these same four processes on an individual level, and thus is continually growing and becoming an individual.

As figure 6 shows, close and important relationships involve two individuals (me and you) as well as their relationship (us).  As the arrows suggest, the life, building, meaning/valuing, and blueprint processes merge into the US box, as well as into the ME and the YOU boxes.  The important point here is that when a relationship is “messed up” it is the US box that is in severe conflict or not working.  Nevertheless, the difficulty may be strictly a result of difficulties in the relationships or it may be a result of difficulties in either the ME or the YOU box.  Alternatively, the relationship problem may arise because the ME box has been growing and developing differently and inconsistently with the YOU box.  In that event, the two individuals are gradually getting to a point where their relationship does not meet their needs, meet their expectations, serve the interest of their growing and becoming, and so on.  Compounding the complexity of close and important relationships to the final extreme, consider the fact that even if one truly understood a relationship at a given point in time the processes influencing that relationship are continually changing.  This means that the relationship is, itself, continually changing and is never the same.  Considering how truly complex the relationship or US box really is and that individuals have an US box for each of their close and important relationships, the man who says he enjoys an uncomplicated life must be unmarried, work alone, have no parents or children, and have only one friend who just comes around twice a year for lunch.

Linda, age seventeen, is talking about the difficulties in some of her US boxes.  You ask, “What have you been doing?”  “Ronnie and I made up last night.  Boy, it’s fun to have a fight.  Making up is really nice.  That Ronnie, he’s something else.  One minute he can be wrestling with me and really hurting me.  The next minute he can be as soft and gentle as he can be.  [You say: You seem kind of nervous today.]  Yeah, I know I’m nervous.  I’ve been nervous all day.  [You ask: Does your nervousness have anything to do with Ronnie?]  I don’t know.  It might have to do with school.  I got my grade card today and got two F’s.  I may be missing too much school.  I’m behind already.  I don’t know why I keep going.  I probably should have quit a long time ago.  Maybe if I quit, I could come back sometime to night school and finish.  [You ask: Do you think quitting school would help things any?]  I really want to be an airline stewardess.  If I quit school, that’s out.  I think maybe you have to go to college to be an airline stewardess.  Anyway, quitting school isn’t going to help that any.  I doubt if I could meet the qualifications, anyway.  School’s a big problem.  I don’t mind the work so much, but I can’t stand a couple of those teachers.  I don’t know why I get along with some and not with others.  There’s that one in particular I just can’t stand.  That’s okay, I don’t think she can stand me, either.  [A little later in the conversation, you ask: What kinds of things are important to you?]  Nothing much other than having babies and taking care of my horse.  I told Mom I want to have a baby but I don’t want to get married. I asked her what she thought I should do about that.  She told me if I got pregnant she’d make me have an abortion.  I sure set her straight.  My older sister got to keep her baby.  [You ask: Have you talked with Ronnie about having babies?]  No.  We’re not into that kind of thing.  We just have a good time, but we don’t talk about heavy stuff like that.  You know what my doctor asked me?  He said—you’re not going to believe this—he asked would I go to bed with a guy I just met?  He must think I’m a little tramp or something, but I’m not.  [You say: You seem kind of confused about boys, babies, school, the hassle with your mother.]  Yeah, I get confused, and I can’t figure things out.  I can’t talk my problems over with anyone.  Everyone always talks to me about their problems, but I can’t talk to them about mine.  [You ask: Do you have any idea why it works that way?]  No.  But I really get mad about it.  I get tired of playing ‘shrink’ to all my friends.  I listen to their problems, but they won’t listen to mine.  It just seems like everybody uses me and wants me for whatever they can get.  I don’t know why I keep trying.  My own mother doesn’t even care enough to listen.  She thinks we have this great relationship, but it’s just because I sit and listen to her yak on and on.  If she only knew what I really thought, she’d have a hemorrhage.”

As you talk with Linda, would your approach be to suggest that she look at her relationships one at a time and try to repair them?  Your approach would probably be to help Linda think about her pattern of relating to people, how she gets into certain kinds of relationships and how she should go about building more healthy, satisfying relationships in the future.  Suppose, though, that Linda were involved in only one severely conflicted relationship.  Would you then suggest that she attempt to fix or repair that relationship?  From an understanding of the growth and development of relationships, their overwhelming complexity, and their nearly incomprehensible intricacy, it would be far more preferable for you to conclude that seriously deteriorated relationships are not fixable—they are nonrepairable.  The approach would be to encourage Linda to “stop and start all over again.”  When a relationship is really bad and someone invites you to “try to work things out,” it would be the better part of wisdom and understanding to refuse.  You might offer instead to build a new relationship, with no effort being made to repair the old one.

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Please send comments or questions to Gary A. Crow, Ph.D. GAC@GaryCrow.net || and visit www.GaryCrow.net.