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A Sixth toxic relationship behavior, "Horseman 6": Scarcity

Updated: Mar 11

Scarcity Mentality:  One more horseman

In a prior post, I explained how the Gottman Institute model of the four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse helps identify and remediate toxic patterns that can doom marriages and relationships.  In that post, I added a fifth horseman, which is over-explaining and justifying (sometimes taking the form of what I call “prosecuting”), which you can see here.

In my 30-plus years counseling and consulting around relationships – intimate, familial, and business, I have observed one more toxic pattern of doom:  Scarcity Mentality.

What it is:  A belief that there isn’t “enough” for both parties to get what they need or want, which gets in the way of their working together to maximize their satisfaction and happiness, and meet their needs.  This belief leads to competing and looking for ways to prevent one another from taking actions to get their needs met.

Often when couples come to therapy, they are dealing with communication problems such as distrust, contempt, inability to resolve conflicts, disruption in physical intimacy, infidelity, and anger, to name a few examples.   These problems may bubble up in the context of trying to handle daily challenges like distribution of chores, handling of finances, goal setting, extended family relationships, parenting, and of course, sex.  

I have an repetoire of techniques with which I work with couples on these problems, teaching and coaching them on new skills, and guiding them through new insights, new behaviors, and new experiences so that they can build new habits and patterns of relating.  But sometimes, even when the couple is skillfully using I-messages and active listening, scheduling date nights, parenting collaboratively, the “horseman” – or toxic behavior – of scarcity mentality rears its  ugly head, undermining the work they have done and the progress we’ve made.  

Unfortunately, this mentality and the behavior that accompanies it – becoming contestants in grabbing at resources of time, money, and affection, for example causes the couple to feel distant from one another, and can result in certain kinds of paranoid processes – defensive beliefs that your partner is working against you.  These beliefs can escalate and fuel defensive or retaliatory behavior to the point where they become true.


Lupe is very attached to their family of origin, and likes to attend their regular family gatherings, typically for at least part of one weekend day per week.  Lupe would like Terry to join in these visits.  Lupe makes good money – more than Terry, but Terry has been working on developing a business that could be very lucrative and while it is taking a lot of focus and time, and some financial resources now, could provide more leisure once it is off the ground.  Terry feels pressured about spending time with Lupe’s family, and feels it slows down progress on building the business.

Lupe:  It is always so hard getting you out of the house to go to Mom’s.  It’s embarrassing showing up late, and you are distracted when we are there.  They love you, and you loved them when we first got together, but now you are clearly pulling away.

Terry:  You know I am trying to get this business off the ground, and it seems like the closer I get, the more obstacles you throw up in the way.   

Lupe:  It’s not clear that it will make that much money, and really, we do have enough with my salary and what you make doing your deliveries for the dispensary.  

Terry:  And you used to have faith in me that I could do more than being a pair of hands for someone else’s business.  It’s like you don’t want me to succeed.  

Lupe:  You’re making this into something it isn’t.  I’m just asking you to support me and be part of the family.  Is that so much?

Terry:  And I’m just asking you for a little support so I can do this thing for both of us!   It feels like you don't want me to succeed 

Lupe:  You are starting to think you are too good for my family, and you don’t care about them.  I can tell you’d rather be somewhere else.  

What’s happened here is that Terry and Lupe have gotten away from working together to get as much as possible of what each wants, and they are competing with each other – and the competition is starting to get ugly, trending toward accusations and complaints. And yes, paranoia.  

The way out of this dynamic:  

  • Identify, confirm, understand what your partner wants – and why they want it.

  • Affirm that you want them to have as much of what they want as possible, and that their having it serves your interests.

  • Explain what you want and why you want it.

  • Take turns saying what you are willing to do to contribute to your partner getting what they want.  

  • Consider using a form to track your progress toward coming to a solution.

  • Use the following open ended questions to find the solution that maximizes benefits to both of you:

    • What would you like about that (whatever your partner is asking for)?

    • What would that do for you?

    • Is the current situation hurting you/making you uncomfortable/unhappy in any way?

    • How would it make you feel if we did/had what you are thinking of?

    • How are you feeling about the conversation we are having right now?  What could make it better?

    • How would that make you feel about me? Yourself? Our relationship?

    • In what way(s) is this a tender subject?

    • What’s your fear about it?  

    • What would be your idea of the best possible way we solved this?

    • What about this relates to how we present ourselves/are perceived by our community? Family? Friends?

    • What similar past experiences contribute to how you feel about this?

Of course that's easier said than done. Take a stab at using this form. I'm here to help if you need me.

Scarcity Mentality Form (2)
Download PDF • 74KB

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