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.
THE KILLER AT WORK
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?
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’S HOW IT WORKS
Here is Carlos the baby.
Here is a loud, scary dinosaur toy.
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.
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
COMING BACK FULL CIRCLE
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