The #1 Relationship Killer: Are you unknowingly sabotaging your chances at love?

on May 7, 2011 | in Relationships | by


What’s the #1 relationship killer in America?

Is it finances? Is it dishonesty? Plain old incompatibility?

No; the #1 relationship killer is something much harder to spot. It’s pervasive, existing to some degree within each one of us, and yet it’s rarely cited as the killer that it is. Why? Because to most of us, it’s invisible and elusive—an unseen killer that lurks beneath the surface.

But despite its invisible tendency, make no mistake about it: whether you’re on a first date or in your fourth year of marriage, it affects you. It’s found within all ages of both women and men, and it’s the force behind numerous failed relationships.

What is this relationship killer, and how can you keep it from running your life and sabotaging your relationships?

Today you’ll learn the breaking truth. The good news is that you aren’t doomed to remain a victim of these unseen forces— with adequate awareness, its grip can be loosened.

So let’s get started.


You know how I love to give weird analogies and lots of examples, and today is no exception. So before I jump into all the technical details, I’m going to give you an example of the killer at work.

Here is my dog, Angel. Isn’t she just the cutest little thing?

Angel the dog

Lately, Angel hasn’t wanted to sleep in my bed with me like usual. Every night, I pick her up and place her in the normal spot next to my pillow. And every night, she promptly jumps off my bed and scampers into my closet, which is apparently her new sleeping spot of choice.

Words cannot even explain how tragic this is.

“Angel!!! Why don’t you love me anymore?” I whine. I pout for a few minutes to see if she notices. She momentarily looks up at me from atop the pile of dirty laundry in the closet—but she doesn’t move a muscle.

“Come on, sweetheart,” I coo. I walk into the closet, pick her up, and put her back onto the bed. “You stay here!” I say. “Mommy loves you! Mommy needs you!” (I know, it’s sickening.) I put my arm around her just to see if I can keep her put.

Angel squirms away and jumps off the bed again.

I try this routine a few times more before I realize that my efforts are futile. For some reason, Angel has decided to abandon me. My dear, darling Angel… has cruelly decided to withhold her love from me. What have I done wrong??!

A mild sense of panic begins to well up within me, and I’m not quite sure how to resolve it. I am pretty sure that my precious Angel no longer loves me. Awhile later, I finally drift into an unresolved sleep.

Upon waking in the morning, I still have a sense that something is missing. I walk into the closet, pick up the sleeping Angel, and carry her into bed. In her deep sleep, this time she stays. I snuggle against her warm fur, and all is well in the world again.


I know your exact thoughts right now:  “WTF, Therese? You just told a stupid story about your dog and about how delusional you are. What does this have to do with anything?”

That’s exactly it: I’m delusional. And so are you… and so is just about everyone, although to different degrees and in our own unique ways.

THIS, my friend, is the number one relationship killer in America.


I know, I know… you don’t think that you’re delusional. At this point, you’re like, “I know you are, but what am I!!?”

But remember what I said at the very beginning of this article—that the killer often goes unseen. So before you write off the possibility of your own delusion, let me explain how it operates and why it’s virtually invisible to most of us.  I’ll also explain why it’s in fact quite normal (so don’t worry; you can breathe a deep sigh of relief).


Here is Carlos the baby.

Carlos the baby

Flickr image by notsogoodphotography


Here is a loud, scary dinosaur toy.

Dinosaur toy

Flickr image by CarbonNYC

Rarrrrrr! (Just take my word for it: this toy is very LOUD and SCARY.)

Carlos’ big brother puts the toy in front of Carlos’ face, and naturally he becomes very frightened by it.

[Carlos the baby + Loud, scary dinosaur = Frightened Carlos]

Now imagine that Carlos is shown this toy again sometime in the future. Do you imagine that he will be frightened by it again, even if it hasn’t yet made any noise?

Of course he will— anyone who’s taken psychology 101 should know this (not that we didn’t instinctively know it anyhow).

But let’s ask ourselves a second question: why should Carlos be scared the second time around? After all, he’s not yet old enough to recall specific events or situations—this ability, also known as “explicit memory,” doesn’t begin to develop until children are about two years old.

“An infant who sees that toy just gets upset; the infant doesn’t sense, ‘Oh, yes, I remember that toy. It made a loud noise before. Perhaps it will make one again. Oh, no!”’

-as explained by Dr. Dan Siegel, M.D.

So we can see that something much stealthier is at work here—a type of “memory” that sits below the conscious mind and that unknowingly shapes our perceptions from the very beginning. This is what psychologists and neuroscientists call “implicit memory.” Unlike the type of memory that we are more familiar with, reactivations of implicit memory lack the sense that something is being recalled.

“By a child’s first birthday, these repeated patterns of implicit learning are deeply encoded in the brain,” explains Dr. Siegel.

And so without even thinking, without the sense that he is recalling anything at all, Carlos the baby will automatically react with fright to all toy dinosaurs—and for good reason, because throughout his childhood, this learned reaction will allow him to protect himself against many a toy dinosaur attack from his older brother.

But the caveat is this: outside of Carlos’ home, not all toy dinosaurs are loud and frightening. This one, for example, is actually kind of cute— and it makes no noise at all.

Fuzzy dinosaur

Flickr image by

And yet without even realizing it, Carlos will inevitably cover his ears and turn away with fright upon exposure to this dinosaur. Carlos knows no other option; he cannot see outside of his delusion—which developed for good reason, but which has become inept under changing circumstances. Instead of protecting him as it once did, his implicitly ingrained reaction has now become disabling, prohibiting him from being open to the possibility of a pleasant toy with a fuzzy tuft of hair atop its head.

Carlos’ implicit memories of the past have become his new reality, regardless of whether or not they remain accurate. Even worse, Carlos is completely unaware of this predicament.

THIS, my friends, is why we’re delusional. And THIS is why our delusion is often invisible to us. We react, we remember, without the sense that anything is being recalled at all. We react to “the dinosaur” automatically, without thinking. Our perceptions and our responses are encoded at a deeper level than we know.

And so regardless of the true nature of the particular toy dinosaur at hand, our implicit memory has unknowingly become our current reality. The nature of all pleasant toy dinosaurs becomes distorted through the lens of our own implicit expectations.

“We simply enter these engrained states and experience them as the reality of our present experience.”

– Dr. Dan Siegel


Bringing us back to the example of Angel the dog: Like seeing a toy dinosaur, seeing Angel jump off my bed triggers an implicit response within me.

I do not understand why it’s there, and I don’t recall any specific pattern of events that would have caused it.

And yet when Angel jumps off my bed—when someone I’m invested in doesn’t return my phone call —when my boyfriend leaves without giving the expected hug—a strange sense of panic arises within me.

In the case of my dog Angel, it’s quite easy  to tell that my perceptions are delusion and not reality. OF COURSE Angel hasn’t abandoned me. OF COURSE she is not cruelly withholding her love from me. OF COURSE, OF COURSE, OF COURSE!! To think anything else would be silly. She is, after all, just a dog.  And although this voice of reason doesn’t automatically quell my feelings of insecurity, it does bring up the strange awareness within me that—well, I am a bit delusional.

Within non-dog relationships, though, this awareness is a bit more difficult to reach. And yet becoming aware of our own unique delusions is one of THE most important things we can do, because the more we become aware of the lens through which we view our relationships and the world, the more our delusion loses its power. It goes from being an all-encompassing, unseen relationship killer—  to a strange familiar feeling; a small and perceptible expectation in the back of our heads. It may never completely leave us, but the more we come to know it and to see its distinction from reality, the freer we become. Instead of subconsciously acting based on our delusion, we become free to act based upon the truth of the situation.

This, my friends, is the awareness that we’re after.

After all, in a world of fuzzy-topped dinosaurs, toy-dinosaurphobia is a terrible ailment to have.


[Main image Flickr credit: DESENHO FRITO]

This article references the following book by Dr. Dan Siegel: The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape who we Are

related posts

  • Natalie

    Am I your muse?? Is this article written as a hint to me to stop the panicked 2am text messages?? :)

    • therese

      LOL… I don’t need a muse when I’ve got myself! ;)

  • Love your blog Tree!

    • therese

      Thanks Chels!

  • It’s so true! I see so many people sabotage themselves in relationships because they get obsessed interpreting what every little thing means, and turn into a crazy person… I can’t say I’ve never made this mistake before, but I’ve learned to at least REALIZE I’m being crazy so I can CHOOSE not to act on it.

    • therese

      Yes, exactly– once you are able to see your own unreasonableness, then it becomes much easier to choose more appropriate responses and actions.


  • Just found your blog. You are hysterical! :) This post gave me some great laughs…thru my tears. What you are saying could not be more true. Love it…I will keep reading. Thanks.

    • therese

      Thank you, Cathy. I’m glad you could relate and I’m oh-so-glad you’re here :)

  • Ann

    I can totally relate to the dog story (and now feel a bit foolish!).. This made me laugh, but also realize that I must be suffocating to be around at times ~ no wonder my “ex-boyfriend turned just a friend” sometimes resists contact with me! Ouch! Now I just need to learn how to stop this unreasonable behavior of mine. Thanks for this post! Hilarious! :)

    • therese

      Thanks Ann! Yep, the truth hurts a little but it’s freeing too ;)

  • Cher

    You have hit a proverbial nail on the head. Sometimes it takes time to become aware of our lack of awareness! The patterns repeat until the lessons are learned! Understanding where this sense of inadequacy or fear comes from is key and learning that often our reactions are involuntary and very often totally off-base!!! Understanding this reality based notion is the first step in being able to bring about something good in lieu of a self-destructive reactive outcome.

  • you = awesome.


    • therese

      No, YOU = awesome!

  • Rodney

    Therese hey. . .maybe as you have said….you are not really that cool. but i must confess you do have a beautiful mind. i simply love the post. i’ll definitely be reading more again and again. . .stay cool.

    • therese

      Thank you Rodney :)

  • Pingback: Creative Process. Mindfulness. |

  • Can anyone…seriously anyone…look into the eyes of that sweet little purple dinosaur face and NOT smile? I think I love him. or her. probably him…

    Your photos kill me! They are like…well, there are no words to describe how awesome they are!

    You have a gift at finding the perfect photo to match the perfect message. It really drives it home.

    But seriously, your posts on relationships and love have meant a lot to me, and challenge my thinking. Tough situations on the home front.

    • It’s so fun finding these photos! Kinda like a treasure hunt… definitely a him! ;-)

      <3 <3

  • Tennie Videler

    “After all, in a world of fuzzy-topped dinosaurs, toy-dinosaurphobia is a terrible ailment to have.”

    what a quote!!! I’ll try and work that into my writing sometime (with appropriate reference of course)

    • Hee hee hee! Thanks Tennie.

  • Pingback: 17 Entrepreneurs & Bloggers Reveal How You Can Change the World | BrightLittleSocks()

  • Benjamin

    Thank you for writing this. I experienced that relationship killer insecurity this week, maintained my composure though, and sought help from a therapist. Like your article said, with the awareness of the delusion, the delusion will subside. Thank you.

    • Yes, being a witness of the delusion is paramount… :)

  • Pingback: 8 Ways Youre Unknowingly Sabotaging Your Relationships -

  • amanda

    Wil be reading more, I feel like I was reading about myself. It’s like I’m always trying to mess up my relationship when some little thing doesn’t go my way, and by doing that I make one problem 100 times worse or make a million other bigger problems. I will keep reading, thank u for this powerful msg.

  • Klara Chludil

    My ex said I was crazy asking him if he had or having an affair. I was right he was cheating on me on Facebook. Sending pics of his private parts. I contacted some women and some believed me and some didn’t. I have feeling he cheated on one of them and I send her a message on Facebook and she said he and I ( meaning me ) were friends and I was delusional that i thought he and i were a couple . She’s the delesouinal one.

  • CN

    Everyone creates idols and assigns them to do some specific duty or expectation.
    As soon as we make an assumption that the idol has changed or let us down or stops living up to the expectations we assign them we become angry with them. Yet the idol has done nothing different nor changed all that dramatically. The harder we try to change our partners in hope they will conform or adapt to our needs we find we personally change our point of view of our partners or relationship.
    Accepting people as they are and not what they have to be for our individual needs will go along way.
    Creating delusions or illusions of what we hope or desire in a relationship will ultimately fail.
    It’s human nature to seek approval from our friends and family but, unfortunately very hard work.
    Most of us fail miserably at it. many place way too much unreal expectations to the point they sabotage every effort to attain a healthy relationship with others. One has to have a healthy relationship with themselves first only then maybe they can teach others to love.

  • Cocochanel31

    OMG this explains what happened with my ex ! I came over to visit him really late one night because it was football Monday and figured he would be watching the game with his boys as usual, and HE LOCKED ME OUT OF THE HOUSE, something he has NEVER done, insisting I came too late and ultimately dumped me that same night saying I did not love or care about him!! I was veery confused and thrown for a loop, but I see now he was in a DELUSIONAL state and thought by me coming over really late I had abandoned him..this stuff is too deep!!

  • Bor Cobritas

    This kind of brought me back to all these times where i had been irrationally jealous because of nothing; being “nothing” insecurities and the fear of being left behind and alone.

    The funny thing is, i already knew what happened and kept saying to me things like “it’s OK, you’re overreacting” but i kept and kept punishing me. This eventually lead to breakup and stuff, as if i had prospectively decided my own future just by letting delusion creep in. What a shame.

    Thanks for the silly examples, they really help. And keep bringing smiles to my days. I get one every time i read something of yours :)

  • Kennda Burt

    Too much intro and show, I would have liked more focus on the actual issue at hand, but I appreciate the article, because once you actually got to the point, one could only agree with it.

  • John

    Met a Indian lady who talked of all being delusional, I did not understand her then but do know, she changed the way I think, delusion is bigger than we think

« »