Why do some relationships fade while others strengthen?

I have been reflecting recently on why certain relationships - be they family, platonic friendships or romantic relationships - fade or strengthen over time. What might be going on here? What factors need to be considered? And what can we do about it?

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W. Barnett-Pearce in his book entitled Making Social Worlds: A communication perspective argued that we are born into permanent relationships, for example, son, daughter, brother, sister, cousin, nephew. But we also form temporary relationships as we grow older e.g. colleague, friend, husband, wife.

Here, I feel Barnett-Pearce is arguing that temporary relationships are temporary in as much as when a person leaves a company, the relationships formed in that context may come to an end; romantic relationships may end when a partner either dies, there is a breach of trust or a mutual decision to redefine the relationship.

Barnett-Pearce says that family relationships are permanent because even if a relationship breaks down the family connection label still remains. However, these associations can also deteriorate; we exist in a sea of relationships and the importance we place on them can be dependent on what we need from that connection.


Factors

Relationships exist for as long as they are needed or at least as long as we benefit from them. Social psychologists argue that, as social creatures, we need interaction but that does not mean that all relationships are good for us when we are not getting out what we put in. Or as we get older our worldview, responsibilities hopes and dreams, and likes and dislikes may change so much that some relationships fade over time as a person’s needs change.

Anthony Robbins, a motivational speaker from the US, identifies six Human Needs that may help us understand how relationships are born, maintained or fade away. These are, firstly…

Security/certainty

Feeling secure in our relationship with others can help us feel safe and be free to explore and share our vulnerabilities. The main complaint for women in couples therapy is that their husbands will not open up. For these women and even some men sharing one’s vulnerability with another can strengthen connection with others because the listener may feel a sense of privilege in being trusted to hear something that is deeply personal and their feelings will be heard, understood and validated.

Spontaneity/uncertainty

In order to grow people, need to go beyond their comfort zones, explore new experiences and challenge themselves and push the boundaries of their capabilities. As in the saying ‘variety is the spice of life’ some of us crave variety in our lives and the opportunity to be spontaneous in order to release ourselves from the restrictions of everyday life such as work. Therefore, it could be reasonable to assume that we would search for relationships that give us this opportunity, those that do not may lead to a loss of connection over time. 

Giving beyond yourself/contribution to the world

For this need, think about when you are out with friends and you decide to drink in rounds. Do you notice that some of your friends may be keen to get the next round? I feel Tony Robbins here is suggesting that we like to feel that we are contributing to the world and to others in our social groups. If this need is denied then we might feel we have little to offer or others may feel we are taking advantage of their generosity.

Love and connection

This seems self-explanatory because as human beings we crave the love and connection of others a sense of togetherness and unification can help us to feel secure. But what sort of things connect us? These could be; life experiences, world view, interests, political ideology, aspirations or simply personal values.

It should be pointed out at this point that a person need not to be similar in all the ways stated but if they are unable to connect on any of these then the chance of connection could be thwarted. This may then hinder the chance of feeling love, a sense of togetherness and lead the relationship to become eroded over time. 

Importance/significance

If we feel our social connections do not necessarily need us around, for example being left out of a social event or not consulting your partner about a large purchase such as a car. Then our opinions or needs go unheard this can make people feel less important within a social group or romantic relationship and connections could begin to break down as a result.

Development/growth

As we age for some the need to develop and grow remains a constant, therefore it would not be surprising that we may seek out relationships that enable us to grow and achieve our life goals. Any behaviours that seek to restrict this need by cajoling the other to accept their lot in life and cease personal development means that social connections could begin to fade.


Conclusion

I feel that these ideas lead to the notion that if we take our relationships for granted or we are unwilling to change then this could lead to the relationship being eroded and ultimately fading. Think about your own experiences, perhaps about a relationship that ended without you understanding why? Did you make assumptions about what the other person needed? Were your expectations the same as the other person's?

It may be helpful to consider that some associations are more important than others and if someone feels less/more invested in a relationship this could lead to the bond becoming one-sided, becoming toxic and counterproductive to our own wellbeing. Loyalty can be an important quality but being loyal to the detriment of our own well-being in the hope that the other person will reciprocate could be an example of a relationship that has become one-sided.

So, what can we do about relationships that feel like they are slipping away? As W. Robert Nay in his book Overcoming Anger in your Relationship argued, we cannot control how others react to us but we can control how we react to others and when we understand what is happening to us, we can change our behaviour. We need to be honest about our relationship needs and what we can offer others; acknowledge that people change and this change may lead to a natural disconnection.

Consider how much your life, interests, and worldview has changed compared to those you were in secondary school with? Do you still have the same strong connection? Do you have stronger connections with those met later in life? In romantic relationships, couples that are tuned to changes within their relationship, are able to be honest about what is working or not working, can respect each other’s feelings stand a good chance of maintaining connection because they are developing and growing together. 

In platonic relationships, communication expert Deborah Tannen argued that women (this is a generalisation) on the whole maintain friendships because the way they communicate implies that connection is the most important part of their friendship this allows for a deeper, richer and stronger connection with others. Whereas men’s communications tend to focus on status, resulting in weaker fewer fulfilling relationships.

As the author of the book When Good Men Behave Badly, David Wexler, explains, men tend to see their wives as their only emotional support whereas women tend to have a lot more resources to draw on. This may explain why for men their romantic relationships may grow stronger than their male friendships.

I suppose that the main takeaway from this reflection is that maybe some relationships have a shelf life. What we considered important to us in our 20s may no longer be important as we age and some relationships naturally fade. While others strengthen which may not be personal, it may be simply that as our sense of who we are evolves so does who we feel connected to.

If you evolve together or at least not to the point where the differences become so large that the relationship fades away. Then it becomes easier to either maintain the relationship or recognise it has run its course. It is also worth considering that this can also happen with family relationships as well. I hope that my reflections resonate with some and remember it can be easy to start new relationships; family relationships are not immune to deterioration as well as work associations or those that exist in a temporary context persist as long as the context does.

The trick is being able to maintain relationships, track their evolution and sometimes recognise that relationships naturally fade while others will strengthen.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Bedwas, Caerphilly, CF83 8EH
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Written by Anthony Purnell, BSc (Hons), MBACP (Accred) MNCS (Prof Accred)
Bedwas, Caerphilly, CF83 8EH

I am an accredited counsellor with the BACP and NCS, I am Systemically trained and work with clients in a relational way and I am also a qualified supervisor. I work in private practice which I began in 2019 and work with adults over the age of 18 either as individuals or as couples.

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