The Hidden Culprit of Relationship Breakdowns: Scar Tissues

Building lasting relationships, whether personal or professional, is no easy task. Astonishingly, some marriages endure for 25 years, while many professional partnerships fizzle out within a few years. The secret to understanding these breakdowns lies in the concept of “scar tissue.” Scar tissue, just like the physical kind, weakens relationships over time. 

We found the lecture “Scar Tissues Make Relationships Wear Out” by Professor John Ousterhout at Stanford illuminating. The topic of communication is a perennial one in business because work is built on top of working relationships. We all know of relationships that have broken down with time. Ousterhout argues that just as damage to the body results in scar tissue, damage to the relationship builds an emotional equivalent. 

Scar tissue can hold regular tissue together for a while, but is fundamentally weaker than normal tissue, so when there’s enough of it, a strong tear can rip it apart. If we don’t work diligently to manage and reduce emotional scar tissue, eventually the damage builds up enough that the relationship itself is vulnerable. In this blog, we’ll explore the dynamics of scar tissue and offer strategies to keep it at bay.


Why Relationships Fail: The Slow Accumulation of Scar Tissue

Relationships often don’t collapse due to a single catastrophic event. Instead, it’s the accumulation of minor grievances and annoyances over time. These small issues, akin to emotional scar tissue, slowly erode the foundation of the relationship. Patterns of behavior emerge, expectations set in, and eventually, the relationship deteriorates. The spectacular events that often mark the end of a relationship are merely the breaking point of accumulated scar tissue.

Case in Point: A Remodeling Job Gone Awry

An example from the author’s life illustrates the concept of scar tissue in action. During a four-month house remodeling project, the relationship with the foreman, Jim, soured. Small issues like unsealed plastic and failure to admit mistakes led to growing irritation. Both parties contributed to the friction. The author’s perfectionism clashed with Jim’s reluctance to accept fault. The relationship deteriorated to the point where they barely communicated.

Preventing Scar Tissue: The Key to Long-lasting Relationships

If you want a relationship to last, preventing scar tissue is crucial. When conflicts arise, they must be resolved with zero lingering animosity. Effective communication and compromise are vital. Both parties must listen, understand each other’s perspectives, and find fair compromises that leave no one upset. Any lingering resentment can lead to scar tissue and eventual breakdown.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Being Too Nice: Giving in without genuinely letting go of resentment can create emotional scar tissue.

Over-Arguing: Trying to win every argument can be relationship-damaging. Being satisfied with the resolution is more important than winning.


In the end, it’s not the significant events but the accumulation of emotional scar tissue that erodes relationships. By preventing the buildup of resentment, you can increase the longevity of your personal and professional relationships. Remember, it’s not easy, but it’s the key to maintaining lasting connections.

You can ignore a problem, but eventually, if you don’t work to repair it, it might break catastrophically. 

“Scar Tissues Make Relationships Wear Out” by Professor John Ousterhout

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