8 Cancers That Can Hurt Relationships

Author and speaker, Dr. Stephen Covey, spoke of five different kinds of cancers that destroy all relationships. As a mental health therapist, I know of eight (including Dr. Covey’s five) that many of us are unaware of and that we may practice daily without realizing. In his work, the late Dr. Covey spoke of these first five, but I believe the last three are equally important as well:

  • Compare
  • Compete
  • Complain
  • Contend
  • Criticize
  • Contempt
  • Condemn
  • Catastrophize

When we compare, the message we send without necessarily saying the words is, “You’re not good enough.” For example, consider how we might unintentionally compare our partner with another family member, or a child to a sibling. It sometimes sounds like, “If my brother were going to do what you are doing, he would do it this way…” or, “Look at your brother/sister – she always does the dishes right after supper.” Comparing is a form of rejection, and can send a silent message that your loved one is not quite “enough”. Over time, comparing our loved ones to others can eat away at their self-esteem, feeding into a script that they really are not good enough to us. Lack of awareness about our tendencies may lead to this becoming a habit.

Competing can bring a healthy sense of vitality to any relationship. However, competing to win or lose out of sport, fun, and good-heartedness is quite different from the resentment one feels internally if one loses, or places too much on the high that comes with winning. Competition becomes toxic when it’s done out of the need to win or to prove we are better than our loved one. This form of competing is not grounded in humility and grace, and is rather a kind of competing that usually pushes others away. After all, who enjoys being around a sore loser – or a poor winner for that matter?

Complaining often shows up on its own and sounds a lot like, “I have to do everything around here,” “I am so tired, but no one ever notices,” or, “Everyone is always in a rush, I always have to rush.” Complaining is different from venting in that it is put onto others without an invitation to share what’s bothering you. Complaining can also sound like nagging, and loved ones may interpret it as such. When we complain, we risk having loved ones and important people in our lives “tune us out.”

Contending is about the individual who always offers a rebuttal or counter-argument for almost anything. It sounds a lot like, “Yes, but let me tell you….” What this does is negate the other person’s words and sends a message that what they have to say is unimportant, unworthy, or not valued. When we contend, we essentially cut people off, and they may lose motivation to be in a relationship with us or engage with us – contending can shut people down and out.

Criticism can have serious negative consequences when it is delivered to someone who isn’t ready to hear it. Unwanted criticism can cause us to feel like we’re being “knocked down” or bullied. While criticism in the form of constructive feedback can be appreciated when the timing is right, a loved who is criticized repeatedly over time often feels like their very core is being attacked. Criticism sounds a lot like, “Oh my, you put on a little weight, didn’t you?” or, “I really think you would do much better with your grades if you focused less on your music.” While both these statements might be helpful for the listener in the right context, it can be damaging when unsolicited or when it’s delivered to a recipient who may be feeling more sensitive than usual. It’s safe to say nobody enjoys being “nitpicked” or negatively scrutinized.

Contempt communicates a strong disdain for another and, when directed at loved ones, can seriously put a relationship at risk. It can be communicated through our body language and tone of voice, often taking on the form of eye-rolling, scrunched-up noses, or mouths turned slightly down. Because it happens so quickly, we might miss it when we do it ourselves. Contempt communicates our disgust in another and can seriously destroy a sense of safety in the relationship.

Condemning is a powerful and negative way to reject another and usually occurs in the presence of others. What it communicates is complete rejection or disapproval of another in a public manner. Condemning someone sounds very judgemental to the receiver, causing them to feel humiliated, ashamed, and/or embarrassed. It can sound like, “You have the worst friends – they don’t have any sense and sometimes I wonder about you,” or, “You make the worst choices at times!” When done in the presence of others, it can feel like an amped-up criticism. When done repeatedly, individuals feel berated, blamed, attacked, and particularly devalued.

When we catastrophize, we buy in to the irrational thought that things are worse than they actually are. In relationships, this can sound like, “What’s the point in apologizing? They probably hate me already,” “Well, I may as well not go home – I’m already in the dog house, so what does it matter,” or, “Why bother cleaning up? This house is a disaster and people don’t like me anyway.” Catastrophizing can cause serious stress and anxiety for individuals, and it communicates a belief of little hope or ability to tap into resilience. Because anxiety can be contagious, this kind of behaviour in a relationship can become emotionally draining over time.

Perhaps the last four points are among the most detrimental to any relationship. Like an unwanted cancer, each of these, as Dr. Covey put it, “will metastasize” where they spread and begin to eat away at your relational bonds with loved ones or colleagues. This makes it all the more vital to learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of your behaviours, and find ways to unpack why it is you are doing what you are doing. It’s equally important to find ways of coping that replace unhealthy behaviour with healthier and more positive, productive forms of connecting that will inevitably lead to richer, higher-quality relationships. This may sometimes mean finding a life coach, therapist, or counsellor to help work through some of these unwanted behaviours. It may also mean committing to working on yourself, on your own time. What matters is having the courage and commitment (two relationship savers) to take an honest look at oneself, identify the challenge, and make the change. When we begin to shed light on areas that have lingered in the shadows, we are well on our way to ensuring the trust, safety, and comfort in our relationships remain intact.

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.


Cindy Deschenes

MSW, RSW – Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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