How to Resurrect a Dying Relationship One Emotion at a Time By Richard B. Joelson, DSW on 12/1/22 - 5:27 PM

In my practice, I have borne witness to many romantic partnerships that have failed with time —often to the shock and dismay of one or both partners. For many of these couples, it is a stunning development that was mostly or even completely unforeseen. This downward relationship spiral is most poignantly captured in the phrase, “death by a thousand cuts.”

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Retrospective analyses or “relationship autopsies” of these deteriorating ties often evince what I have come to call an “erosion of affection.” When hotbed issues between partners are not adequately or amicably addressed or resolved, chronic grievances fester and lay the foundation for irreparable damage. Affection is diminished and negative perceptions replace whatever positive ones might have previously existed.

Case Study: Amy and Mark

Exemplary of this point is the case of Amy and Mark. Amy had been after Mark, her husband, for over a year to put his dirty socks in the hamper. Mark had repeatedly promised to cooperate, but rarely if ever did so. This exchange between Amy and Mark went on nightly and eventually both became angry with each other. Amy felt disrespected and powerless. and Mark, who came to think of and eventually call his wife “a nag” for her constant pursuit of his compliance, seemed even less inclined to cooperate with her incessant badgering over something that seemed so insignificant to him.

Perhaps at an unconscious level, Mark became disinclined to “give her” what she had been asking him for. More importantly, the stalemated issue of the socks had changed the atmosphere in the relationship. Amy’s frustration had grown into resentment both because of the socks on the floor and being called a name as “punishment for my persistence.”

It was helpful to learn — and apparently for the first time — that Mark had been diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder earlier in life and had a history of troubled interactions both personally and professionally. In his individual and marital treatments, he came to understand and accept his role in what he subsequently referred to as “the absurd socks situation that I created.”

Unresolved Issues Lead to Erosion of Affection

Therapeutic work with Mark and Amy benefited enormously from a rather unusual collaboration between me and the clinicians who were working individually with each member of the couple. The continuous informational exchange enhanced everyone's understanding of the historical antecedents to their difficulties with each other and provided valuable guidance for each therapist as the three treatments simultaneously continued. Initially, the level of anger about this and other unresolved issues between the two marital partners were causing considerable damage to their relationship.

An important effort was to help them to use their anger to strengthen their communication and accomplish stated goals rather than to continue to cause possibly irreparable damage by their verbal abuse toward each other. Once the anger eased and the overall emotional climate improved, I often had Mark and Amy replay their earlier troubled interactions. The “before and after” provided an important opportunity for them to see the differences and enjoy the benefits of their overall improved manner of relating to each other.

The Spotlight Shines on Negatives

An often-unrecognized consequence of unresolved issues like this one is that they infiltrate the marital system and lead to other accusatory and blameworthy exchanges. This pattern sets the stage for lower tolerance for the partner's other quirks, foibles, and irritating behaviors that earlier had been either trivialized or ignored. The spotlight shines with increasing brightness on the negatives since they might be the new focus, especially if there has been little or no conflict resolution.

In the case of Amy and Mark, the idea of dirty socks “laying around” unattended seems an apt metaphor for the degradation of their relationship. Cleaning up this mess seemed an equally powerful and positive metaphor for their improved relationship.

Seeking Counseling When the Erosion Has Passed the Breaking Point

Many couples who eventually seek my counseling assistance for their troubled relationships arrive at my office when the erosion of affection has already passed the couple’s breaking point, causing irreparable damage. This makes the therapeutic enterprise a more complicated, if not doomed, endeavor.

It certainly helps if both partners have, or can be helped to have, sufficient reflective awareness to acknowledge responsibility for the now troubled union and be willing to do the necessary work of restoration and repair. It is especially helpful if neither partner has quietly consulted an attorney and if the subject of separation or divorce has not been part of the recent dialogue between them.


I did not write this piece as an advertisement for couples therapy. However, I suppose I am recommending that couples and individuals seek help to avoid creating a collection of unresolved issues and unaddressed grievances that carry the potential to ruin their relationship. Much like knowing when to consult a physician if a worrisome physical symptom appears, partners in a relationship need to be reasonably alert to the development of potentially harmful issues that can subvert the quality of their relationship. This is especially true if those issues threaten to erode their affection and make their bond difficult if not impossible to repair.

Final Questions for Thought

What therapeutic strategies do you employ with couples like Mark and Amy?

What feelings did the case of Mark and Amy provoke in you?

How do you address your own feelings when working with couples destined to separate?    

File under: Couples Therapy, A Day in the Life of a Therapist, Musings and Reflections