Four Choices That Can Ruin Your Relationship
No one embarks on a new relationship hoping to wreck their well-being and their partner’s. But all too often, that’s exactly what we do. The bad habits you learn in one relationship tend to carry over into the next, and your parent’s relationship style can affect the way you behave in your relationship for the rest of your life. It’s common to be blind to these habits. In fact, many couples are engaged in ongoing disputes about whether a problem actually exists! Your spouse might loathe your constant criticism, while you struggle to accept that you’ve ever been critical at all. The reason for this is simple: our habits are a part of who we are. Like the fish who never notices the water in which he swims, our habits feel normal and comfortable to us – even when they hurt others.
Famed relationship researcher John Gottman has dedicated a lifetime to studying habits in relationships. His research has been so effective that he can now predict divorce with near-100% accuracy by just spending a few minutes with a couple. How could this be? According to Gottman, there are four habits that can instantly kill a relationship. While it’s possible to eliminate these habits through couples counselling, couples who persist with these dangerous choices are headed straight for divorce court. If you need help with these relationship habits, relationship counselling may be your best bet.
Healthy criticism is a normal and necessary component of marriage. Your spouse needs to know if she hurts your feelings or if you prefer a different sexual approach. Some criticism, though, is the death knell for a healthy and happy coupling. When you attack your partner’s personality or character, you’re directly endangering your relationship. Examples of such damaging criticism include:
Excessive nit-picking; it’s fine to raise an issue every now and again, but Gottman has found that couples must offer five to 10 compliments for every criticism to remain happy.
Attributing motives. Say, “I feel neglected when you don’t take the trash out” instead of saying, “You didn’t take the trash out because you don’t care about me!”
Contempt is the act of attacking your partner’s sense of self, or dismissing your partner’s needs, values, personality, or very existence as unimportant. Name-calling often plays a role in contempt, but contempt can also be more subtle. Ignoring your partner when he speaks, rolling your eyes, walking out of the room, or mocking your partner’s words all display contempt.
Contempt is dangerous because it is the very opposite of love. When you convey contempt, you tell your partner that he or she simply does not matter. Often this creates a cycle in which you both display progressive levels of hostility, aggression, and contempt. Even in the best cases, though, contempt erodes your partner’s self-esteem, turns you into a bully, and helps to destroy the romantic spark that once kept you so close to one another.
The natural inclination when someone attacks you is to defend yourself, but defensiveness in a relationship can slowly erode trust and communication. Why is defensiveness so bad? There are at least two reasons. First, people typically only become defensive when they’re repeatedly attacked, so defensiveness suggests that your partner is engaging in contempt, name-calling, or some other unhealthy relationship strategy. But second, your own defensiveness signals an unwillingness to work through problems in your relationship. Loving partners listen carefully to their partner’s concerns, but defensive partners subtly convey the message that they just don’t care about meeting their partner’s needs or listening to his or her feelings.
It’s normal to need a few minutes to cool down from a fight. But when you deliberately avoid talking to your partner, you engage in stonewalling. Stonewalling inhibits communication and makes your partner feel as if they have little control over the relationship. If your partner struggles with jealousy, abandonment fears, or insecurity, stonewalling can trigger extremely negative emotions that give rise to a bigger fight.
So how can you tell if you’re stonewalling? Some signs that you engage in this behaviour include:
You hang up on your partner during telephone fights.
You leave your house when you fight.
You refuse to talk about problems with your partner.
You talk over your partner, interrupting him or her until he or she just gives up.
You try to control the conversation, preventing your partner from talking about his or her feelings.
Stonewalling completely destroys your ability to confidently navigate disputes, and leaves your partner with ongoing feelings of uncertainty. The behaviour is most common among men, who are often raised to be uncomfortable with emotions and emotional conflict, though both men and women can engage in stonewalling.
If you’re concerned about your stonewalling, commit to taking brief breaks from conflicts if you need to. Then give your partner a specific time at which you’ll be ready to discuss your dispute, then keep your word!
If you find that you and your partner are repeatedly struggling with these issues, it may be time to seek relationship counselling. A counsellor can help you clarify your needs, communicate more effectively, and steadily regain the loving relationship you once shared.