The Top 6 Relational Handicaps That Break Relationships and Bonds

Part of the new series “Relational Handicaps” and How To Transform Them.

As a couples’, family therapist and addiction’s specialist, I spend a significant part of the day, working with couples, individuals, business leaders, vets and others who are undergoing their own painful versions of relational fracture and conflict, currently wreaking havoc in their lives.

Their underlying goal is to figure out how to repair that break so that they can find relational harmony. No small task. We live in an ever-expanding context of global relational mayhem and from boardrooms to bedrooms we seem to fumble with the most effective ways to disagree, consider others’ opinions, negotiate and resolve the challenges we have before us. The closer the relationship, the more that’s at stake. And the more at stake the more we seem to mess it up.

  • Helping people effectively sustain crucial conversations, repair deep setbacks and reestablish meaningful connections for over 20 years, I’ve seen that a simple, yet powerful way out of our relational challenges starts with honing an ability to spot and then transform what I’ve dubbed our “relational handicaps” the words and actions we draw upon to relate, argue or repair which emerge from our upbringing and programming and in turn, keep us from truly relating on a whole-hearted level to others-

The outcome of demoting our relational handicaps is productive, effective, respectful, meaningful and connection-inducing conversations– the root of positive human communication. Silence doesn’t work, and neither do harsh words, cruelty, defensiveness, evasiveness, sarcasm, lies, or aggression.

Interestingly, our lack of relational skills isn’t as apparent when “everything is going our way”, when, say, the honeymoon period of a marriage is beginning, or coming into a job that matches the desired role and salary we’ve longed for, or when our kids are thriving in school and performing well and achieving things we think will help them grow.

The challenges emerge, however, and our relational handicaps become VERY clear, (and the discord turns to pain, trauma and even abuse) when we perceive that we’re not getting our way, or when we feel unheard, disrespected, devalued or worse.

  • Learning how to identify and transform your relational handicaps will create a crucial balance between your feelings and your actions. It will increase your chances at having a stronger marriage, a more effective and nurturing parenting approach, better leadership and managerial experiences, kinder friendships, and better mental and emotional health overall.

The Top 6 Relational Handicaps:

A couple of weeks ago, this topic came up over tapas and red wine, while having a very lively and meaningful conversation with Kathy Caprino, my dear friend and career executive/ leadership coach (and former family therapist). Kathy asked me what I thought were the top (most damaging) relational handicaps. After giving it some thought, below are what I have found to be the top 6. (We’ll be talking more in depth about this topic in an upcoming interview on Kathy’s podcast Finding Brave!)

1) Reacting vs. Responding
Addressing issues in a way that was adopted (by necessity) in your younger years but no longer works. The approach is spontaneous (knee-jerk), unfiltered, often abrupt and riddled with passive or active defensiveness.

2) Poor or no self-awareness vs. Being mindfully curious
Having blind spots on how your beliefs, thoughts, feelings and behaviors originated and rejecting learning about them or caring how they impact you and others.

3) Accommodating vs. Being real
This is the adult version of acting out of “peer pressure”; the energy is directed at putting on an act, thus, overriding clear judgment, often betraying loyalties and failing to be genuine to yourself and with others.

4) Complaining vs Requesting
Complaining about what you’re NOT getting rather than making it clear what you’d prefer and why that’s important to you.

5) Avoiding vs. Encountering
Not allowing (uncomfortable) conversations to take place by making yourself unavailable or creating an impossible space between you and others in which to have them.

6) Compromising integrity vs. Leading with truth
Rejecting accountability for choices made or being unwilling to humbly acknowledge the impact of your choices; often circumventing facts, fabricating situations and finding ways to justify them, regardless of the (damaging) consequences.

  • Upcycling our particular relational handicaps is a powerful step to restoring the way in which we operate in the world. It is the birthplace and home of relational harmony and integrity and an attractive trait, both for personal and professional (mutual) gain.

To begin to identify and stand up to your top relational handicaps, take these 5 steps:

1. Ask yourself what emotions are most prevalent in you when arguing?

Tip: Name at least 3 emotions.

2. Identify what is most important for you when you face a difficult conversation.

Tip: Think of the thing you most often walk away wishing happened.

3. Ask 5 people in your life whom live or work with you, to tell you (honestly) what specific behavior would make you a better friend, parent, co-worker, etc.

Tip: Look for a common denominator, even if subtle.

4. Think back into your childhood and ask yourself what you weren’t taught or actively encouraged or discouraged to do as a son/daughter, with siblings, friends or teachers.

Tip: Bring yourself back to when you were young and identify how you remember your parents handled difficult issues, how they faced difficulties between them and what they praised or devalued in you and others.

5. Identify the traits you admire in others and long to demonstrate but can’t seem to
when you’re faced with emotional challenges.

Tip: Pick 2 people whom you look up to because they handle hard situations or conversations with integrity and name the actions you wish to emulate.

If you are ready to let go of a relational handicap that has been making a mess of an important relationship, I invite you to brave-up and choose one trait you wish to expand upon, and take it for a “test drive” for a week. For example, if you tend to lead with reactivity, choose instead to deeply breathe first and be curious to hear other’s perspectives before you speak or do anything. If you tend to lead with avoidance, deeply breathe and talk yourself into staying put, listen fully and tolerate the discomfort of staying in the conversation.

Which relational handicap resonates most with you today? Please share below.

For more information, sign up for my monthly blog and stay tuned for my new series “Healing Your Relational Handicaps.” Also, tune into my upcoming podcast interview with Kathy Caprino’s on her podcast Finding Brave.

All my best,

2 thoughts on “The Top 6 Relational Handicaps That Break Relationships and Bonds

  1. Audree M Hall

    What a transformational article. because I no longer want to engage, I have become logical in all my responses with my husband. All left brained and no emotion. Then, a small thing makes me burst.


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