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Relationships • Compatibility

The Difference Between Fragile and Strong Couples

How can you tell whether a relationship is going to last the course – or whether it’s doomed to founder? What’s the difference between fragile and solid couples? Here are some of the things to look out for…

Over-Optimism About Relationships

Fragile couples tend, paradoxically, to be very hopeful about love. They associate happiness with conflict-free unions. They do not expect, once they have found the person they unwisely see as The One, ever to need to squabble, storm out of a room or feel unhappy for the afternoon. When trouble emerges, as it inevitably does, they do not greet it as a sign that love is progressing as it should; rather as alarming evidence that their relationship may be illegitimate and fundamentally flawed. Their hopes tire them for the patient tasks of diplomatic negotiation and routine maintenance.

Out of Touch with Pain

Fragile couples tend not to be good detectives of their own sufferings. They may be both unhappy and yet unsure as to the actual causes of their dissatisfactions; they know that something is wrong in their unions, but they can’t easily trace the catalysts. They can’t zero in on the way that it was the lack of trust in them around money that rankles or that it has been their behaviour towards a demanding youngest child that has been hurting. They lash out in vague or inaccurate directions, their attacks either unfairly general or unconvincingly specific. 


A shamed person has fundamental doubts about their right to exist: somewhere in the past, they have been imbued with an impression that they do not matter very much, that their feelings should be ignored, that their happiness is not a priority, that their words do not count. Once they are in a couple, shamed people hurt like anyone else, but their capacity to turn their hurt into something another person can understand, and be touched by, is recklessly weak. Shamed people will sulk rather than speak, hide rather than divulge, feel secretly wretched rather than candidly complain. It is frequently very late, far too late, by the time shamed people finally let their lover know more about the nature of their desperation.

Excessive Anxiety

Complaining well requires an impression that not everything depends on the complaint being heard perfectly. Were the lesson to go wrong, were the other to prove intransigent, one could survive and take one’s love elsewhere. Not everything is at stake in an argument. The other hasn’t ruined one’s life. One therefore doesn’t need to scream, hector, insist or nag. One can deliver a complaint with some of the nonchalance of a calm teacher who wants an audience to learn but can bear it if they don’t; one could always say what one has on one’s minds tomorrow, or the next day.

Excessive Pride

It takes an inner dignity not to mind too much about having to level complaints around things that could sound laughably ‘small’ or that leave one open to being described as petty or needy. With too much pride and fear, it can become unbearable to admit that one has been upset since lunch because they didn’t take one’s hand on a walk, or that one wishes so much that they would be readier to hug one last thing at night. One has to feel quite grown up inside not to be offended by one’s own more childlike appetites for reassurance and comfort. It is an achievement to know how to be strong about one’s vulnerability. One may have said, rather too many times, from behind a slammed door, in a defensive tone, ‘No, nothing is wrong whatsoever. Go away’, when secretly longing to be comforted and understood like a weepy, upset child. 

Hopelessness About Dialogue

Fragile couples often come together with few positive childhood memories of conversations working out: early role models may simply have screamed and then despaired of one another. They may never have witnessed disagreements eventually morphing into mutual understanding and sympathy. They would deeply love to be understood, but they can bring precious few resources to the task of making themselves so.

None of these factors mean a couple will split up, but they are generators of the states of emotional disconnection that can eventually break two people apart. Outwardly, things may seemingly be well. A couple may have an interesting social life, some lovely children, a new apartment. But a more judicious analysis will reveal an unexpected degree of risk. The good news is that knowing a little about the risk factors can help us identify them in good time – and, with the help of good advice from the School of Life, fix them in time.

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