Patterns to look out for to keep relationships healthy

How do relationships deteriorate?

Relationships are tough, no matter how much we love our partners or how hard we try to make them work.

At one point or another, most of us have found ourselves making a snarky remark or being unkind to the other person. It leaves both parts of the couple feeling sad and hurt or guilty. We promise ourselves that was the last time we did it and then, inevitably, fall into the trap again

For some couples, these episodes are occasional and both parties can move past them (usually due to healthy communication and both people taking responsibility for their actions).

For other couples instead, these episodes are harder to avoid and to move past. Sometimes they are exacerbated by an event (e.g. loss of a job, death of a close one, affair) and sometimes instead they happen because of fundamental differences. Regardless, too many of these episodes can affect the couple dynamic to the point of no return.

So how do we take care of our relationship? How do we give it the best chance at succeeding?

What should you look our for?

Dr John Gottman has done extensive research on relationships and has concluded that these four factors are a key predictor for divorce: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling. He has dubbed them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Most couples will have elements of these, but healthy couples use them less frequently and do more to repair them when they are used.

It goes without saying that this is not meant to be a tool to predict how well your relationship is going. These are elements that you should look out for and try to avoid and improve on.

Horseman #1: Criticism

What is it? Criticism (e.g. “You always leave a mess”) is a way of making someone feel that there is something wrong with them. When we criticise our partners, we make them feel rejected and hurt, which opens a dangerous path to the other horsemen.

What can you do instead? Instead of attacking your partner personally, make a complaint and offer a constructive solution (e.g. “When the house is untidy, I find it less cosy and welcoming. Could we make an effort together to keep it tidy?”)

Horseman #2: Defensiveness

What is it? Being defensive is a way to deflect the blame (e.g. “I got angry because you said something silly”), and gives your partner the message: “it’s not me, it’s you”. This leads to neither partner taking responsibility for their actions, which is a dangerous habit to get into.

What can you do instead? The key here is to learn to take responsibilities for our actions and to reflect on them together (e.g. “I got angry because I was frustrated that I wasn’t able to convey my point of view”).

Horseman #3: Contempt

What is it? Contempt is when you imply superiority to your partner. Mocking them, rolling your eyes and sneering in disgust are all examples of contempt. This horseman is the most serious one, as it destroy fondness and admiration in the couple.

What can you do instead? Replacing contempt with encouragement and respect is key to maintain the couple dynamic healthy. Instead of mocking your partner for always being ill for example, try to understand they are stressed with work and encourage them to relax and take some time off.

Horseman #4: Stonewalling

What is it? This is when, during a conflict, one person withdraws from the interaction (either physically by leaving or simply by shutting down). Even though they are trying to calm themselves, it appears like they don’t care, which exacerbates the conflict and creates a vicious cycle.

What can you do instead? Instead of withdrawing from the conversation (or getting more angry because your partner is withdrawing) agree to stop the discussion and come back to it when both people are more calm. This allows the person who is overwhelmed to self-soothe and allows you both to take a step back and be more collected when you pick up the conversation again.

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