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Handling Relationship Barriers

Chapter 1: Handling Relationship Barriers

Tools for Relationships

By: James J. Messina, Ph.D.


What symptoms indicate barriers to the growth of a relationship?

In your journal write down those barriers from this list that apply to your relationship(s):

  • Communication between partners is difficult or nonexistent.
  • Fighting or arguing becomes frequent.
  • Loyalty and fidelity begin to be tested.
  • Jealousy appears.
  • There is competition to have needs met.
  • Problems and disagreements go unresolved.
  • Insistence is on doing things together (never alone).
  • Partners feel chained to the relationship.
  • People outside the relationship know about the problems.
  • One person controls problem solving, rules of conduct, and planning.
  • There is competition to see who is the stronger.
  • There is a sense of non-productivity.
  • An enabler covers for the other.
  • Confusion and disappointment is evident.
  • Talk is about how it should be, not about accepting the way it is.
  • Comparison of partner to previous partners, parents, or other family members begins.
  • Constant negativity exists.
  • Problems with intimacy exist.
  • Each others' feelings and rights begin to be ignored.
  • Partners are unable to express their feelings to each other.
  • Relating is at an immature or basic level.
  • One partner clings to the other.
  • Partner(s) act disconnected, like free agents.
  • Depression becomes evident.
  • Partner(s) are unable to make a commitment.
  • Fun goes out of the relationship.
  • Partner(s) are unwilling to get outside help.
  • Stubborn and bullheaded behavior is exhibited.
  • Denial of even having problems exists.
  • Partners ignore and/or run away from offers of help.

Barriers in interpersonal relationships are instituted by the following irrational beliefs and behaviors:

Mistrust: lack of trust in your partner liking and accepting who you are rather than how she/he wants you to be. You are always on guard, vigilant, waiting to be taken advantage of in the relationship.


Fear of rejection: belief that your partner couldn't possibly like or accept you for who you are and that she/he will probably reject you sooner or later, so you are on the lookout for the slightest signs of rejection.


Need for approval: belief that you need ongoing approval from your partner. You remain cautious about the way you act, believe, feel, or behave so as not to offend or lose the approval of your partner.


Insecurity: belief that you cannot rely on yourself or on your partner to take care of you. You are continually anxious about how your personal needs will be met.


Inflexibility: belief that your way is the only or the best way for you and your partner to relate, act, interact, communicate, and problem solve. You hold to a rigid, structured, absolutist belief in the way things must be in your relationship.


Lack of autonomy: belief that your partner must act, believe, think, feel, behave, and relate like you do, spending all free time with you. This does not allow the two of you to behave as independent, functioning human beings.


Lack of communication: where active listening, effective, helpful responding, and open free problem solving is absent. It is either closed (one way) or parallel (talking in parallel or side-by-side with no listening) communication.


Avoidance of conflict: belief that if you two never argue, fight, or disagree, the chance of having a lasting relationship is better.


Lack of respect for the rights of the other: conscious or subconscious belief that your rights are the only ones that count in the relationship; therefore, acting in such a way that your partner's rights are ignored, negated, discounted, or offended.


Fear of intimacy: belief that if your partner gets too close, somehow she/he will know about the real, feeling, sensitive, and human you. This knowledge will make you very vulnerable to being hurt, thus you shy away from getting too close.


Need for control: belief that you can only enjoy a relationship with your partner if you are in complete control. If you are not in control, you will somehow be smothered, taken advantage of, or ignored.


Need for power: belief that you must be the most powerful or exert the most strength of will in the relationship. You believe that otherwise you will be consumed, become a wimp (Casper Milquetoast), be ignored, be powerless, and therefore ineffectual in the relationship.


Irresponsible: belief that you have little or no responsibility for the relationship or for your partner. You do nothing to nurture the relationship or to help your partner cope with life.


Over responsible: belief that you are solely responsible for the welfare and well being of both the relationship and your partner; therefore, you do things to improve the relationship and to cover for your partner's lack of responsibility.


Low self-esteem: belief that you are worthless, of no value, with nothing to offer in a relationship. You either take no initiative in the relationship or you continually feel and act inferior, defensive, tentative, or resistant.

Fantasy or idealized image of what a relationship should be and how those in it should interact: idealistic and unrealistic standards, often unobtainable, yet their lack of attainment leads to depression and dissatisfaction with the relationship, your partner, or yourself.


Lack of healthy role models: lack of an appropriate example (role model) of a healthy relationship, not knowing what normal is. Children from dysfunctional families often feel that somehow things aren't right but seldom can pinpoint the problem of having unhealthy role models.

Chronic hostility: chronic anger due to your high stress background. This may lead to resentment and hostility toward yourself and others. You cannot hide this hostility; therefore, your partner might misread it, take it personally, and thus be hurt.


Hiding feelings: belief that you should never let your partner know your feelings, especially if they are negative or self-deprecating. The result of not revealing your feelings, be they positive or negative, is that your partner is left in the dark and must always guess at what is really going on with you.


Lack of positive reinforcement: belief that you do not have to reinforce your partner for the good she/he does, says, or relates. Without the support of positive verbal or physical feedback regarding sensitivity and kindness, your partner develops a sense of apathy, lethargy, or lack of desire to please in the relationship.


Overdependence: belief that without your partner you are nothing, incompetent, meaningless. It means clinging to your partner in such a way that you never act independently, requiring and expecting full support for the majority of your thinking, believing, and problem solving.


Too independent: belief that you cannot afford to risk depending on anyone except yourself for fear of becoming vulnerable to being hurt, let down, rejected, or disappointed if your partner does not respond fully to any request for assistance, support, or help. Your behavior, therefore, keeps you and your partner separate and unconnected.


Chronic depression: chronic state of melancholy about yourself and life in general. This interferes with complete appreciation of your relationship with your partner. Your behavior and emotional state can give the message that your partner is the cause for your depression, upsetting the relationship.


Avoidance of risk taking: belief that it is better never to take a risk than to take a risk and fail. In order for a relationship to begin or to grow, active risk taking by each partner is essential. In the absence of healthy risk taking, relationships are usually dead-end.


Absence of fun: belief that having fun is frivolous and unnecessary in nurturing a relationship. Such a belief can lead to the partners' taking themselves and their relationship too seriously and becoming problem focused in their interactions.

Identification of symptoms and barriers in your relationships

Step 1: Spend some time reflecting on the symptoms listed in first section of this chapter. Write down in journal each symptom you feel exists in your relationship. Do this task first and don't share this list with your partner.


Step 2: Review the list of barriers in the second section. Write down in your journal each barrier you feel you have brought to this relationship. Again, do this task silently and do not share this with your partner.


Step 3: Once you both have completed Steps 1 and 2, you are ready to share the lists. Take turns sharing the symptom list (Step 1) and the barrier list (Step 2). As you are speaking, your partner is to listen quietly, respectfully, and understandingly. Your partner is not to respond to your list as yet. After sharing the lists of symptoms and barriers, it is your turn to listen quietly, respectfully, and understandingly to your partner. You are not to respond to your partner's list as yet.


Step 4: Consider the following questions for discussion:
  • Is it possible to explain the problems in our relationship by the individual barriers each of us has brought to the relationship?
  • How are our individual barriers a result of the experience each of us has had in our families of origin and previous relationships (or marriages)?
  • Why are these barriers such obstacles to resolving the symptoms we each listed?
  • How can we resolve the problems based on the barriers we brought to our relationship?
  • What do we want from each other in order to handle the individual barriers in our relationship?
  • How easily are we able to admit the individual behavior that brings barriers to our relationship?
  • How much effort will it take to overcome our individual behavioral barriers?
  • How willing are we to support one another's efforts to change or alter the individual behavior that causes barriers in our relationship?
  • How willing are we to accept each other's behavior and not overreact when barriers come up in handling problems in the relationship?
  • What options are available to us in handling these barriers in a healthy way?


Once you have reviewed these questions, discuss your lists of symptoms and barriers with one another.


Step 5: In discussing each other's list, consider the following questions for discussion:
  • Which barriers did we bring to our current relationship?
  • What behavior shows these barriers?
  • How irritating is this behavior to one another?
  • In discussing these barriers are we discussing issues we thought were past problems in our relationship?
  • How deeply rooted in each of our personalities is this behavior?
  • What are the origins for our behavior? Was it the families in which we were reared? Was it a relationship in the past in which we were hurt? Was it a previous marriage? Was it a past hurt in our current relationship?
  • How can we create a climate of healing in our relationship; that is, accepting the existence of each other's behavioral barriers?
  • Why does it make no sense to blame each other for the behaviors each of us has brought to the relationship?
  • How will we handle it the next time one of these barriers interfere in the relationship?
  • How real are our relationship problems? Are they really problems or are they just the interaction of the behavior each of us has brought to the relationship?


Step 6: Complete Steps 1 through 5 before you tackle the next section: steps to handle problems in your relationship.

Steps in handling handle problems to allow healthy relationship growth:


Step 1: Admit you have a problem in your relationship. Use the symptoms list in the first Section of this chapter to help you identify the symptoms of the problem. In your journal, write down the problem. Then write how you know it is a problem by listing symptoms present in your relationship.


Step 2: Based on your open admission in Step 1 of the problems in your relationship, decide which of the barriers listed in second section of this chapter are present in this problem. List them in your journal.


Step 3: Once you have listed the problem and symptoms in Step 1 and the barriers in Step 2, share this list with your partner, and ask your partner to read your descriptions in Step 1 and Step 2. Answer those same questions in your journal.


Step 4: Based on your partner's responses in Step 3, you both can compare your responses to the three questions. You are ready for an analysis of your different and similar points of view. Write down on which points you agree or disagree concerning the problem, its symptoms, and the barriers present.


Step 5: You and your partner are ready to develop a plan of action to address those barriers (problems) you agree exist in your specific relationship:Take each barrier one at a time and decide:
  1. For whom is this barrier more active?
  2. Is the barrier a blocking or irrational belief?
  3. Can the belief be refuted?
  4. Can the party with the barrier handle it with assistance in the relationship or is outside help needed?
  5. How long will it take to overcome this barrier?
  6. What behavior can each of us develop to help overcome this barrier?
  7. How will we know if we have been successful in overcoming this barrier?
  8. What preventive action can we take to ensure that this barrier is no longer an obstacle in our relationship?
  9. What replacement behavior is needed to ensure that this barrier does not recur?
  10. Are we both in agreement with the remedial course of action needed? If yes, then we need to commit to working on it.


Step 6: Answer the ten questions in Step 5 for each of the barriers you agree exists in your relationship. Once you have completed this, you have developed a plan of action to address each of these barriers.Now you and your partner need to work on the barriers.Remember, barriers existed over which you two did not agree.


If over a period of time you still have barriers in your relationship, return to Step 1 and begin again. You must eventually agree there is a barrier before it can be controlled and dealt with so that it no longer interferes in the health and well-being of the relationship.