In Stress and Coping

Causes and Remedies for Troubled Relationships

All relationships, even the most successful ones, have conflict. It is unavoidable.

The Gottman Institute has identified four signs that a relationship is in trouble, which can happen because of unaddressed attachment wounds (I was talking about them in my previous post). These signs have been emphasized as

Criticism. When you partner is criticizing you, he/she is attacking at the core of your character or personality.

The important thing is to learn the difference between expressing a complaint and criticizing:

  • Complaint: “I was scared when you were running late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.”
  • Criticism: “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. I don’t believe you are that forgetful, you’re just selfish. You never think of others! You never think of me!”

The problem with criticism is that, when it becomes pervasive, it paves the way for the other. It makes the ‘victim’ feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt, and often causes the perpetrator and ‘victim’ to fall into an escalating pattern where the first critics reappears with greater frequency and intensity, which eventually leads to contempt.

Remedy: when your partner is verbally attacking your personality or character, you need to talk about your feelings using “I” statements and express a positive need.

Contempt. When your partner communicates with you in this state, you are truly treated with disrespect, mock you with sarcasm, ridicule, call you names, and mimic or use body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing. The target of contempt is to make you feel despised and worthless. It is the greatest predictor of divorce, and it must be avoided at all costs. Contempt goes far beyond criticism. While criticism attacks your character, contempt assumes a position of moral superiority over you.

Remedy: when your partner is attacking sense of your “self” with an intention to insult or abuse, you need to remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities and find gratitude for positive actions.

Defensiveness is typically a response to criticism. When you feel unjustly accused, you look for excuses and play the innocent victim so that your partner will back off. Unfortunately, this strategy is almost never successful. Your excuses just tell your partner that we don’t take his/her concerns seriously and that you won’t take responsibility for your mistakes.

Although it is perfectly understandable to defend yourself if you’re stressed out and feeling attacked, this approach will not have the desired effect. Defensiveness will only escalate the conflict if the critical spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner, and it won’t allow for healthy conflict management.

Remedy: when you are victimizing yourself to ward off a perceived attack and reverse the blame, you need to accept your partner’s perspective and offer an apology for any wrongdoing.

Stonewalling is usually a response to contempt. Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction, shuts down, and simply stops responding to their partner. Rather than confronting the issues with their partner, people who stonewall can make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviors.

Is there a way to manage rather than resolve the conflict? Why to manage? Any relationship conflict is natural and had functional positive aspects that provide opportunities for understanding and settling the arising issues. The first step in effectively managing the conflict is to identify the style of your argumentative interaction based on the presented above signs.

Remedy: when your partner is withdrawing to avoid conflict and convey disapproval, distance, and separation, you need to take a break and spend that time doing something soothing and distracting.

Now that you know what the four signs of troubled relationships and how to counteract them with their proven remedies, you’ve got the essential tools to manage conflicts in a healthy way.

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