by Mark Travers Ph.D.
Successful couples’ counseling starts with a shift in these four behaviors.
Many people assume that a successful relationship is something that happens by itself. They may have the idea that some people “just click,” and that the more effort one has to put into their relationship, the less likely the partnership is to work.
But the truth is that all relationships take work and we should always be striving to be better partners. In this article, I’ll talk about four habits you can develop to manage what psychologist and relationship expert John Gottman views as the most common relationship killers.
1. Be gentle, not critical.
Criticism is a direct attack on someone’s character or behavior. It may be expressed as an accusation or judgment about one partner’s personality rather than a specific action or event.
Criticism sounds like, “You never help around the house!” instead of “I feel frustrated when you don’t help with chores.” Criticism often leaves people feeling attacked, unheard, and defensive.
While it’s not likely realistic to tell yourself that you’ll never be critical of your partner again, you can work on how you deliver your critiques. For instance, use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. Express a positive need instead of negative judgment. Avoid making your partner feel attacked.
Here’s an example. Instead of saying, “You always talk about yourself. Why are you so self-obsessed?” try reframing it as “I feel left out in our conversations. Can we please talk about my day as well?”
2. Appreciate instead of being contemptuous.
Contempt goes beyond criticism. It’s a damaging form of communication that involves attacking one’s sense of self-worth with name-calling, hostile humor, body language, and/or sarcasm.
A contemptuous relationship often involves using sarcasm or making disrespectful jokes about a partner’s character traits or behaviors, behind their back and to their face. Contempt sounds something like, “Oh, don’t start your emotional drama again.”
To cure contempt, build the habit of nurturing fondness and admiration in your relationship by engaging in appreciation.
Here’s an example. Instead of saying, “You forgot to do the laundry again? Why are you so lazy and forgetful?” try reframing it into “I understand that you’ve had a long day, but could you please remember to do the laundry on days I work late? It would be really helpful and I’d really appreciate it.”
3. Take responsibility instead of being defensive.
Defensiveness occurs when one or both partners respond to conflict by denying responsibility for their contribution to the problem and shifting blame onto their partner instead.
Defensiveness can include phrases such as:
- “It’s not my fault!”
- “Why are you always blaming me?”
- “That’s not true!”
When people go on the defensive, it leads to further arguments without resolution because both partners feel like they have been unfairly accused or blamed for something they didn’t do.
The antidote to defensiveness is to accept responsibility for your role in a conflicting situation. Develop the habit of taking mutual responsibility.
An example: Instead of accusing the other person by saying: “It’s your fault that we’re late because you take way too much time to get dressed!” try reframing it as “I like to be on time as much as possible. But it’s OK, we can be flexible at times.”
4. Try self-soothing in place of stonewalling.
Stonewalling occurs when one person withdraws emotionally from an argument to avoid further conflict. This can take many forms—such as avoiding eye contact, walking away from discussions before they’re resolved, refusing to talk about certain topics altogether, and shutting down conversations if things get too heated.
Stonewalling does nothing to address the underlying issues between two people. Instead, it increases feelings of isolation and disconnection which can then lead to further resentment between partners over time.
Self-soothing is an antidote to stonewalling. When you sense an impending stonewalling situation, instead of shutting yourself down completely, first stop the conversation, communicate with your partner, and take a break to practice physiological self-soothing for a minimum of 20 minutes.
Here’s an example of how you can go about it: “I am feeling overwhelmed with our conversation. I need to take a break. Can you give me twenty minutes to take a walk around the block and I will get back to you after that?”
Relationships are like most other living things: They need constant nurturing to achieve their fullest expression. Take time to reflect on how you can approach your relationship with more patience, appreciation, and responsibility-taking. Things can, and will, get better.