Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Renovate Your Relationship: Replace Unsafe Couple Dynamics

Regardless of how new or old your relationship, most couples can benefit from changing relationship dynamics that cause marital deterioration.

In a recent study in The Journal of Family Psychology, researchers, Lavner, Bradbury and Karney found in surveying 251 couples every six months for the first four years of their marriage, that despite the wish for marital fulfillment those whose marriages deteriorated were dealing with unsafe dynamics like verbal aggression, repression of feelings and denial of needs. Left unattended, such dynamics compromised the bond despite commitment, personality strengths or stress level.

In a similar way, no matter how beautifully a couple might decorate a home; a leaking roof or cracking foundation can not go unattended without consequences.

A closer look at a three “ unsafe couple dynamics” may invite mutual consideration of your relationship and the possibility of some renovations.

Verbal Aggression

“Living like this is like living in a minefield.”

  • Verbal Aggression is toxic to relationships because it destroys communication, trust and intimacy. Usually taking the form of taunts, personal insults, accusations, threats of separation or divorce, it locks the partners in pain.  Nothing changes. Nothing is learned about self or other.
  • The person who is verbally assaulted may retaliate or withdraw. At the worst, studies of intimate partner violence find that verbal aggression is a predictor of physical aggression.
  • In an atmosphere of verbal aggression, real connection is impossible. Often one or both partners go through cycles of guilt and fear. With time, emotional and physical health is compromised

Appropriate Assertion of Anger

The hallmark of a viable relationship is the ability to feel anger and express it in a way that communicates a problem, disappointment, conflict, or feeling without frightening, threatening or verbally assaulting one’s partner.

Renovations that make the healthy assertion of anger possible:

Stepping down by one or both in the face of verbal aggression is not giving up – it is protection for both. No one can fight alone. The mutual call for a “ Time Out” or the individual message, “ I can’t really respond if we are screaming,” disrupts the pattern. If it is too unsafe to step away from verbal abuse – it is an unsafe relationship. Professional help and support is needed.

Mutual Ownership of the Situation is very productive. It involves taking on one or the other’s anger as a couple issue. “ Let’s make sense out of this.” It expands the “you vs. me” to what “we” can understand and change.

Listening without Defensiveness increases understanding and reduces the frustration of a partner who is trying to communicate negative feelings. When someone feels listened to without hearing excuses, put-downs, dismissal, counter-attacks, they are less likely to become verbally aggressive or personally despairing.

Recognizing and Accepting Personality and Gender Differences changes one’s view of why a partner is acting in a certain way. It serves to diffuse anger and feelings of personal insult. To expect that your partner should think or feel just as you do sets the stage for expectation, control and anger. Discussing your differences often buffs the sharp edges. Sometimes it invites interest and growth. Sometimes it necessitates negotiating.


“ I feel locked out of your life. We have become strangers.”

Withholding of personal interest, affection, real feelings, worries, dreams, reactions, plans, purchases, failures or desires from one’s partner equates to diluting or disqualifying the bond.

Withholding has to jeopardize a marriage or relationship because it leaves each partner without the benefit of the other’s input- they are no longer confidantes.

For the one withholding – whether he/she is hiding resentments, an affair or a job failure, the withholding feeds on itself as he/she only has presumptions and predictions of how the other would react. There is no longer authentic engagement with a partner.

For the partner who feels locked out – he/she faces a solitary confinement without choice. Usually the reactions are anxiety, panic, at times, rage. Reflecting the lose of a partner, the locked out partner often asks everyone but their partner “ What is going on?”


A viable relationship or marriage is characterized by mutuality, which is defined as the sharing of sentiments, intimacy. In some ways mutuality is the antidote to withholding, as the goal is reciprocity of connection and interest. Mutuality respects privacy but can’t exist if there is a fear of disclosing one’s true self or a need to keep things secret.

Renovations that enhance mutuality:

Privileged Communication which partners reserve only for one another enhances a feeling of specialty and intimacy. Often couples have to re-set the boundaries around their relationship such that there is something unique and mutually protected by both.

Outing the Inner Dialogue is a way to be known and to know one’s partner. Often a partner’s intent is not to withhold but shyness, fear of criticism, fear of mistakes, result in a wall of silence that the other partner reads and experiences as withholding. The more partners can risk listening and sharing without censure or judgment- the more partners allow room for the true self of the other to emerge. The result is  more mutuality.

Revealing the Secret is a difficult but monumental step in enhancing mutuality and trust. It often comes with a mix of relief and fear on both parts. Secrets need airtime. They are best integrated slowly, often with designated times to discuss them, rather than having both partners overloaded with the task of finding a place for the secret. Professional help is often an asset.

Failure to Forgive

“ I can’t live with a constant reminder of what I did wrong.”

The inability to forgive a partner equates to an inability to go into the future with hope and new beginnings. Forgiveness does not equate to condoning unacceptable behavior and it is impossible in the face of ongoing intent to harm.

Renovations to enhance forgiveness:

  • An apology that accounts for hurt inflicted and an understanding of the behavior involved.
  • A consideration by both partners of the conscious and unconscious part they may have both played in the pain suffered.
  • A clarification of goals by each for the new and future life they choose to share together.

Love is an act of endless forgiveness, a tender look which becomes a habit.

– Peter Ustinov


Angry boyfriend photo available from Shutterstock.