Relationships: Breaking It, and Putting It Back Together?

Taking things apart can be such fun. It’s a behavior often observed in children as they sit on the floor, building blocks, doing puzzles, etc., just to then turn around and destroy it, and then start over again. Or sometimes, it’s taking apart household items and then attempting to restore them.

Either way, this isn’t only seen in children. Adults can also possess the drive to create, destroy, re-create, and so on. This can be in more obvious ways (and not all enactments of this process are ‘unhealthy’), such as updating and re-updating a home, or having strings of relationships in which each new partner seems good at first, but then becomes expendable in favor of the newer, theoretically upgraded version of the last.

But this type of destroying and re-creating behavior and dynamic can actually show up within relationships, in not such a healthy manner, as well. It encompasses relationships that involve a more sadistic and masochistic pattern.

The relationship starts off well. But as time goes by, they each get to know each other more closely, begin to get irritated by each other…and that’s when the “fun” starts.

One partner loses control and begins yelling, berating, expressing resentful disdain, and other reactive displays, destroying every ounce of their partner.

Magically, the next day (or after a period of time), the sadistic partner acts like there is nothing wrong at all. Suddenly, there is renewed interest in the partner again, almost like a new courtship — though the partner who just experienced the receiving side of this annihilation is likely feeling distant at this point (if not emotionally out the door, altogether).

So, the chase is on once again. How does the person who just destroyed his/her partner get the other partner back in the door, back to a place of togetherness? This becomes the defining “game” of the relationship.

This relationship dynamic is much more common than one might expect. Relationships that function in this way involve power plays, and leaves one feeling annihilated and worthless, while the other feels relieved and powerful after destroying her/his partner.

The partner who assumes aggressive power is essentially caught in a loop of taking the relationship apart and putting it back together, over and over again; the partner who feels less empowered and victimized often wonders, as the cycle starts over, if the aggressive partner has changed. This then allows him/herself to be destroyed and put back together again — often to be disappointed by the next destructive moment.

This actually becomes the relationship, and it thrives on this cycle. For both, the roles they play often go far back — the current relationship is most likely not their first time in this type of dynamic. The familiarity of the roles can make it very hard to break out of this pattern. And it’s also worth noting that roles often switch throughout the relationship.

When the aggressor destroys the partner, the victimized partner takes the power by deciding if and when to let the aggressive partner back in. At other times, the aggressor switches to the other partner. Either way this plays out, there is a reinforcing process by how the roles are changed, each one taking power at different points in the relationship.

Each partner ends up (at different times) playing on the other’s fears of abandonment and rejection in order to feel a sense of control and power in the relationship. When this happens, the relationship is momentarily destroyed, and then the courtship to rebuild resumes.

No, it’s not a child’s game, by any means. With every destructive power play comes the challenge of the new courtship. And with every phase of the cycle, one partner feels empowered at the expense of her/his partner. Generally, for both partners, this dynamic takes its toll on self-esteem and self worth, which is at the core of what makes it so difficult to break out of the relationship.

It’s also worth noting that people who thrive off of this type of relationship at times can end up feeling bored or stagnant without this dynamic. The cycle constantly generates a form of excitement to keep renewing the relationship.

The existence of this type of relationship doesn’t necessarily mean you’re with the wrong person, however. Individual therapy for each partner, and couples therapy, can go a long way to recognizing what’s underlying these patterns and cycles. Therapy can also help to acknowledge the cycle with new behaviors and new perspectives that can remove the more destructive parts of the repetition, or, at the least, channel the repetition in favor of the relationship, rather than at the expense of it.


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