Marriage researcher John Gottman believes we can predict divorce by identifying the presence of four devastating relationship behaviors.
Harmful patterns of abusive criticism, contempt, or stonewalling can threaten a relationship.
Couples counselling can help those who struggle to change or move beyond the past.
Valentine’s Day evokes images of roses, chocolates, and romance. But the holiday is fleeting, and relationships demand work and care year-round. But the day presents a good opportunity to understand the way couples interact with each other. Therapist and marriage expert John Gottman has studied relationships for decades, and he can seemingly predict divorce for couples with near-total accuracy, even those who otherwise seem happy. How? According to Gottman, it all stems from a few devastating behaviors. This Valentine’s Day, give yourself and your partner the gift of a better relationship by learning about these four indicators of poor relationship health, and understanding how to get them under control so you can enjoy a more satisfying partnership.
Everyone has to give their partner feedback sometimes: “When you talk to me that way, it hurts my feelings.” “I need you to share equally in parenting and household labor.” “I don’t feel safe when you text and drive.” These criticisms are reasonable. But often, criticism becomes a power play. A person begins attacking their partner’s character by calling them sensitive, hysterical, or dishonest. They insult their appearance or fundamental characteristics. Or they spend so much time criticizing their partner that there’s no time or energy for anything else. Perhaps worst of all, they might engage in name-calling—using gendered slurs like “bitch,” calling a partner dumb or lazy, or telling them they’re a bad parent. Criticism can be abusive, and in many relationships, a person pretends they’re offering constructive feedback when what they’re really doing is slowly and steadily eroding their partner’s sense of self.
Even when criticism is reasonable and positive, Gottman suggests a person needs as many as 20 pieces of positive feedback to be able to accept one negative bit. But when criticism is mean-spirited, involves calling names, or fundamentally undermines a loved one’s character, no amount of praise can compensate for it. Instead, make an effort to identify good things you see your partner do, the things you love about them, and the things that make you proud, and then watch your relationship transform.
We all get angry sometimes, but contempt is a darker form of anger. It’s the type of anger that fundamentally dismisses a partner’s needs and humanity. Eye-rolling is an example of contempt. It conveys clearly, “I don’t just disagree with you. I think you’re unworthy of listening to.” Some other examples of contempt include:
- Mocking someone for their emotions.
- Refusing to offer comfort to a crying or otherwise suffering spouse.
- Deliberately ignoring or mocking a partner’s needs.
- Undermining a partner.
- Publicly humiliating a partner, whether deliberately or accidentally.
Contempt is the opposite of love. And while contemptuous behaviors may occasionally leak through even in loving relationships, contempt as a pattern destroys love. Contempt from one partner often breeds contempt from the other. So if you feel like your partner isn’t loving with you, consider the extent to which you might be unloving with them.
We all feel defensive sometimes. And occasionally, your partner might lob a criticism that’s just fundamentally unfair. But if you rarely accept any criticism and are more concerned with telling your partner they are wrong or defending yourself, then you’re being defensive.
Defensiveness destroys the ability to fix problems in relationships. That’s because if the problem is real to your partner, then it’s real—no matter how you feel about it. Defensive people systematically disregard the needs of their partners.
- Some signs you’re consistently defensive include:
- You think your partner is excessively sensitive or overreacts.
- You think that doing good things for your partner should mean you do not have to make changes.
- You spend most of your time telling your partner why they are wrong in their assessment of what you are doing wrong.
- You rarely apologize.
- You think most of the problems in your relationship are your partner’s fault.
- Some strategies to avoid defensiveness include:
Learn how to earnestly apologize. There should be no “ifs” in a good apology; it should instead focus on what you intend to do better next time, as well as demonstrate an honest understanding of how your behavior has affected your partner.
Listen to your partner with an open mind. Assume they are the expert on their own life and needs.
Take your partner’s needs seriously, even if they are different from yours.
Consider honoring everything your partner says for a week or two, without defending yourself or arguing. See how this affects your relationship.
Understand that defensiveness can initiate a negative pattern in which your partner stops asking you to make changes, becomes contemptuous, and displays anger and hostility.
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Have you ever given your partner the silent treatment? Walked out during an argument? Refused to talk about a problem? If so, then you’re stonewalling.
Stonewalling is a refusal to engage meaningfully for a long time—longer than the 10 or 20 minutes you might need to calm down after an argument. Often people stonewall because they lack the skills necessary to resolve conflict. So instead, they leave and hope the conflict will disappear.
Sometimes the partner left behind becomes so frantic that they beg the stonewalling partner back. This puts the focus on getting the stonewaller to return rather than on solving the problem. Over time, this feeds the habit of stonewalling by giving it more power.
Stonewalling conveys two messages: First, you do not care about resolving a problem (or do not think it can be resolved) Second, it tells your partner that you do not care if they get distressed or feel abandoned.
A long-term pattern of stonewalling makes it impossible to solve relationship problems. It can also destroy your attachment by making your partner feel abandoned and disregarded.
Instead of stonewalling, try the following:
If you are not ready or able to talk, reassure your partner of your love and desire to talk, then set a specific time to talk.
If you need time to calm down, tell your partner, then return to the conversation in 10 to 20 minutes. Any longer will just allow tensions to escalate.
Consider how you might use stonewalling as a tool of control to get your partner to listen to you or beg you to talk.
Work with a therapist if you feel overwhelmed or uncertain about how to resolve conflict.
If you’re struggling to adopt better behaviors in your relationship, you’re not alone. It can be hard to change, especially if you feel that your partner is not pulling their weight or when resentment makes moving beyond the past feel impossible. Couples counseling helps you identify what’s really wrong—the core behaviors that subtly eat away at your relationship—so you can focus on, and get more of, what’s right. If you’re overwhelmed, hopeless, or unsure how to fix things, counseling with a skilled professional can be a game-changer.
Posted February 11, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
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