Bad relationships can wreck our mental and physical health.
Although most of us want to be happier with our partners, it’s a very difficult process. We get stuck in the same patterns that promote conflict and make us feel miserable.
How do these unhealthy relationships start?
Most of them have a similar story: they begin with bliss, but soon everything changes. When the honeymoon period ends, we start to see the emotional issues, unpleasant habits, and shortcomings of our partners. Our shortcomings also come into play, even if we try to hide them.
Then the disenchantment phase starts.
We begin to feel frustrated about our unfulfilled needs. When we feel frustrated, conflict arises. While it’s true that conflict is part of being human — there’s not a good story without conflict — it also can severely impair our relationships.
So we need a good antidote for conflict, a way to identify patterns that degrade a relationship to the point of no return. Fortunately, science has a superhero.
The famous clinical psychologist Dr. John Gottman predicts divorce with a 90% accuracy rate, just by looking at the communication patterns of couples in his laboratory. After watching thousands of couples, he discovered the importance of good communication and identified four toxic patterns that predict divorce: criticizing, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. He called these communication patterns The Four Horsemen. Very appropriate.
So let’s see how they appear in a relationship and how to avoid them.
Remember the last time you, during an argument, verbally attacked your partner’s character? That’s criticizing. It’s saying “You arrived late from work again, you are so selfish and self-absorbed”. The last two adjectives — selfish and self-absorbed — communicate nothing positive. They only hurt the other person.
How can we change this? It’s challenging, but simple at the same time. Start by communicating your needs, focusing on “I” statements. Instead of “You arrived late because you are selfish,” say “I need to spend more time with you”. By doing this, you work with your partner, not against him.
Your partner is saying something you think is wrong. Then your eyes-roll. Or you laugh. Or you make a sarcastic joke. Contempt happens when we ridicule or demean our partners. We assume we are superior to them. And you know what they create? Resentment. Tons of resentment. Megatons of resentment that crush our partner’s self-esteem. The consequence of this is the creation of a hate space in their minds about us. With each resentment episode, it becomes larger. It’s like a blob. That’s why contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce.
How do we solve it? Remember your partner’s positive qualities. Express your appreciation often. It’s impossible to get rid of contempt — we are all flawed creatures — but we can create a protective buffer against it. If you express your gratitude towards your partner more often, you will be less inclined to roll your eyes when he says something you don’t agree with.
We see this in all human endeavors around the world. It’s responding to criticism with an accusation. “You didn’t do the dishes” turns into “and you didn’t wash my jeans”. This goes on and on until there are no more accusations left. The biggest problem with this is that nothing gets solved. Everything becomes a pyramid-scheme of different accusations until we don’t know what the hell we were talking about.
How can we solve this? Listen. Don’t change the subject. Your partner is talking about something important, so it’s best to listen and take responsibility. If you choose to go the defensive route, be sure that the problem will come up again.
We stonewall when flooded with negative emotions about us, our partners or the entire relationship. It usually happens in the middle or the end of an argument. We exclude ourselves from the conversation by shutting down. We don’t listen, don’t talk, we look at our phones and leave our partners feeling unheard. Feeling like they don’t deserve our attention or that we don’t like them enough to listen.
Sometimes we need to take a break, but shutting down isn’t the answer. It’s best to say, “I’m feeling nervous and angry about this discussion, I need to take a break. I will go for a walk and when I return we resume the argument”. It’s very hard to do this, but by taking a break, and explaining, we remove ourselves from the situation to calm ourselves. We also inform our partners, so they don’t feel left out. And we give a timeframe, so they know we will talk about the issue again.
Change is hard and gradual, even when we genuinely try to be better. Almost all our failed relationships have a degree of investment behind them. We tried. We failed.
When we read articles about relationships, like this one, our memories don’t keep the information. Especially when we are in the middle of an argument, conjuring ways to be right. So, do a little exercise after reading this: imagine yourself arguing with your partner. Or, if you have a more analytical mind, think about the last conflicts you both had. Then try to see which one of the four patterns appears more.
Then try to change it. Only one. Focus all your energy on one at a time. Write about it, or talk with your partner. Don’t just read, be active in your pursuit of a better relationship and see how it goes.
Perhaps you’ll be surprised.
Previously published on Medium.com.
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