No relationship is perfect, as no single person is perfect. We all get on each others’ nerves, have major conflicts, and even occasionally question the strength of our relationships. But how can you tell if you’re making things better - or making things worse?
Whether your relationship is a few months old or a few decades old, there is never a wrong time to consider your relationship’s health.
According to renowned relationship expert, Dr. John Gottman, four divorce predictors exist. Clinicians trained in Gottman Method Couples Therapy (like me) refer to these as “the four horsemen.” No matter what specifically you’re disagreeing about, these are signs that point to strength or weak spots in your relationship.
The more time you spend together, the more you’re going to notice things. Annoying things. Things that maybe were cute at first, but now they’re….less cute.
It’s human nature to feel the desire to critique someone for doing something different from how you do it. Your way seems better because it works for you, but it may not work for someone else. Whether you’re trying to help, or it’s just something that bothers you, don’t you have the right to say something?
Of course! But it’s all about delivery.
Strong Relationship: You focus on your own needs and feelings when making an observation to your partner about something you’re not happy with.
“I get nervous when we show up late to an event.”
“I’m feeling overwhelmed with managing so much of the wedding planning.”
“I need your help with figuring out how to manage our debt.”
Work on This: You focus on what your partner is doing wrong, why you think they’re like this, and how they can do it better if they just listen to you.
“I gave you a heads up about what time we have to leave, and here I am waiting for you again.”
“You’re not helping with any of the wedding planning, and when you do take over something, it’s wrong!”
“Do you really need to buy another pair of shoes? Who’s going to pay for those?”
The bottom line: Focusing on yourself leaves much less room for defensiveness from the other person. It’s easy to argue against an attack. It’s harder to refute someone else’s feelings.
Contempt is criticism + moral judgment. When you speak to your partner contemptuously, you are not just criticizing something they do, you’re making a judgment about who they are as a person. Your partner is no longer simply “forgetful,” they are “the kind of person who is forgetful.” (i.e., a terrible/unintelligent/inconsiderate person.) Ouch!
No wonder contempt is the #1 strongest indicator for the potential dissolution of a relationship. Speaking to them this way makes your partner feel you are trying to degrade or mock them as much as possible. Are you trying to solve the problem, or are you just trying to hurt the other person?
Pay attention to what message you’re really trying to send your partner.
Contempt is a harder one to undo in the moment. But the best thing you can do is apologize sincerely, however long it takes you to get there.
Some other ongoing things you can do are: Giving appreciation and acknowledging when your partner does something right; expressing your needs and giving them an opportunity to fulfill them (rather than shutting down and “why even bother”-ing); making a conscious effort to have positive interactions, letting small things go, and giving your partner the benefit of the doubt.
Strong Relationship: You look for ways your partner is successful, rather than what they’re doing wrong. If they mess up, you give them the benefit of the doubt. It may not be your *very first* thought, but you have enough good will in to your relationship that you trust they didn’t mean to upset you.
If your partner says something particularly hurtful to you, you recognize that they said it in the heat of the moment. You can still acknowledge the pain (don’t sweep it under the rug), but you can also accept an apology.
“That was a pretty f*cked up thing to bring up, especially because you know I’m not proud of it. But you must have been really hurt to say that. I’m ready to listen but I would like an apology for that.”
Work on This: You or your partner consistently take cheap shots at each other, use sarcasm, don’t exchange true apologies, and hold grudges.
“Why did I expect anything different from someone who still needs their parents’ approval?”
“I’m sure this is really hard for you, since you never learned how to be in a relationship.”
The bottom line: Are you trying to resolve an issue, or are you trying to hurt the other person?
Criticism and defensiveness go hand-in-hand. We become defensive when we know we’re in the wrong. It is normal to want to defend yourself, especially if you feel like your partner is always calling you out for something.
You can hear defensiveness anytime someone says, “Yeah, but…” You’ve already dismissed the other person without stopping to consider that they may be on to something.
Strong Relationship: You can accept when your partner has a point, even if it sucks. You can apologize for that aspect of the conflict, without giving in altogether and suppressing your feelings.
“OK, you’re right about that. I know I don’t spend as much time with you as I used to. Can we figure out a way that I can still go to the gym during the week without feeling guilty?”
“I mean, I honestly didn’t realize that this bothered you. Help me understand why this is such a big deal to you.”
“I can see why you would feel that way.”
Work on This: You deflect any criticisms or complaints buy focusing on what the other person is doing wrong, you give ultimatums, or just shut down without being productive. You keep score against your partner and go back and forth about every reason why you’re right and they’re wrong.
“Well what about you? When I’m home you never talk to me anyway. What else am I supposed to do?”
“OK so I can never do anything for myself? That’s fine, I’ll just stop doing anything for myself and spend all my time at home with you.”
“Remember when you had those late nights at your last job and I didn’t complain?”
The bottom line: Ask yourself if any part of what they’re saying is true. Letting your partner explain their side until you can see their point doesn’t mean you’re giving in. Putting defenses down, however, means both of you are more likely to be heard.
After a certain amount of time spent arguing, it is common that either you or your partner might shut down and stop responding. This behavior is called stonewalling, and it’s incredibly frustrating for the partner on the receiving end. There is a difference between taking a minute to cool down and stonewalling your partner, and this distinction is quite important.
Fun fact: Stonewalling occurs as a result of flooding, or physical/emotional overwhelm. Think increased heart rate, flushed skin, and sweating. When your mind and body are so activated during a conflict, at some point they just get so elevated that they shut down. Some people seem to flood almost immediately, usually because they are already more activated by the time the argument starts. (Actually I’m not sure if that’s a “fun fact.”)
Are you able to have a constructive conversation or do you need to calm yourself down first? Did you check in with your partner if they are ready to talk? Or are you focused on resolving the issue immediately in order to hurry up and feel better?
Strong Relationship: You and your partner take a step back from a fight and cool down, then come back to the conversation when you’re both a little more emotionally stable. You notice if you or your partner appear to be checked out, or just giving one word answers, and agree to table the conversation so you can both calm down.
“I’m so upset I’m not even thinking clearly right now. Can we cool off and talk about this tomorrow after work?”
"Look, I want to have this conversation but I just got home and I haven’t eaten all day. It’s not going to go well. Can we talk in a few hours?”
Work on This: One of you insists on resolving the issue immediately, and don’t respect that the other person is overwhelmed. You get annoyed that your partner needs some time. You or your partner refuses to continue the conversation and stop responding or walk away without acknowledging why, and then you don’t pick the conversation back up.
“Fine, whatever you want. You’re right. I give up.”
“No, we can’t talk about this later. We’re getting to the bottom of this now because I don’t want to have this fight again.”
The bottom line: You can - and should - stop a conversation any time you notice emotional flooding. They key is to point it out and agree when to check back in, instead of just abruptly shutting down.
Your Relationship’s Health
If you feel you and your partner have exhibited any of these examples, don’t panic. Couples fight, critique each other, and say things they don’t mean to one another.
The goal isn’t to be perfect, but instead to be self-reflective and adaptable. Be open to change. Allow yourself to apologize to your partner, and expect the same in return.
The good news is that all of these 4 horsemen can be worked on, and they all have antidotes.
Observe where you are personally making mistakes, and vow to do better. Happy couples aren’t those with no issues—they’re those who put in the work and try to be better for one another.
Prospect Therapy welcomes individuals and couples of all genders and orientations in Long Beach, Seal Beach, and surrounding areas in Los Angeles and Orange County, CA. We are trained in Gottman Method Couples Therapy and are affirming of all relationship structures. Our therapists can help you build on your relationship’s strengths and learn to communicate so that you each feel heard.
Read more about couples therapy here.
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