There are literally thousands of ways we can disconnect with our partner throughout the course of our relationship. We can say mean things in the “heat of battle”, ignore one another at a social event or even forget an anniversary. But alone, these isolated and random events don’t necessarily mean that the relationship is destined for failure.
Research has shown that certain, very specific, behaviors between partners increase the likelihood of separation or divorce. Furthermore, the more consistent these behaviors, the more damaging they are to the long-term success of the relationship. These behaviors are so hurtful to the person experiencing them that they not only change the way they interpret their partner’s communication moving forward (for example, interpreting an ambiguous comment as being more negative than positive), but they change the very way in which they view their partner.
The negative interpretations and altered perspective make matters worse, often creating a downward spiral that increases the behaviors that started things to begin with. This can lead to “last resort” counseling, separation or divorce. If couples understand how to avoid these relational pitfalls, they can preserve and protect the “good stuff” in their relationship and arm themselves with an antidote in times of crisis. Read on to learn more about these destructive behaviors and how to avoid them in your relationship.
Being too critical.
It is normal to get upset with your partner once in a while. You are two different human beings, with different sets of thoughts, feelings, opinions and needs. You will never see eye-to-eye on everything, nor should you. Part of what attracts us to our partners is their individuality and uniqueness. Try to appreciate those differences … even those little idiosyncrasies that annoy you! Keep this in mind when you are next upset with your partner.
It’s also highly unlikely that your partner is upsetting you on purpose (unless you’re in the middle of a toxic argument, or if things have escalated to a high level of resentment in the relationship). More likely, your partner probably has no idea that you’re upset. Avoid making general or sweeping criticisms about your partner’s personality or character. This will undoubtedly make your partner feel attacked, misunderstood and misrepresented. As a result it will only serve to increase their defensiveness towards you and loneliness within the relationship.
Antidote: Instead of criticizing the person, focus on the situation. For example, you’ve mutually decided that money is tight and have worked out a budget together. Your partner then makes a unilateral decision to blow $1,000 on new golf clubs or clothes. Your first reaction may be: “What’s wrong with you? You know we’re on a budget. You’re so irresponsible!” Instead, try saying: “I’m really frustrated that you decided to make a decision to spend this money after we agreed to a budget. I don’t think that was very responsible of you!”
As human beings, we are competitive by nature. Some of us are more so than others, and especially in our relationships. Many couples (in particular, those couples that seek out treatment) do not want the other person to get the upper hand or to have perceived control. As a result, both consciously and unconsciously, couples will do whatever they can to win an argument or prove that they are right and their partner is wrong. These strategies can range from lying to manipulation to abuse.
A frequently-used strategy is leverage, also referred to as triangulation or forming alliances (real, perceived or fabricated). To achieve leverage, you use other people to try to convince your partner that you are just one of many that believe he or she is wrong or crazy. This creates a sense of distrust in the relationship and promotes an environment of finger-pointing and blame, as opposed to collaboration and compassion.
Antidote: Focus on verbalizing your thoughts and feelings, and nobody else’s. For example, in the budget example noted above, you might say: “I’m not surprised. It’s exactly what your mother said … you are not financially responsible! My father warned me to be careful. I should have listened.” Instead, try saying: “I’m really disappointed that you spent all this money right after we set a budget. It scares me that you did this!”
‘Blanking’ your partner.
This is really for the guys more so than the girls (girls rarely do the “blanking!”). Although it may seem easier to just avoid or disconnect from a situation that seems almost impossible to resolve, there is a good way (see Five Ways to Turn Conflict Into Resolution) and a bad way to do it. The bad way is to remove yourself verbally and emotionally from the situation, while remaining physically present in the same room as your partner actively tries to resolve things.
One of the worst things you can do when your partner is upset, angry or tearful is to totally ignore them. Regardless of your intentions, it sends a loud and clear message of superiority and disrespect. Your partner will undoubtedly feel unimportant and hopeless in resolving this situation and any other similar situation in the future.
Antidote: It’s important to remain engaged in the conversation even if you need your space (or at least long enough to ask for it). Understand that your partner is hurting, and while you may not be ready to work on fixing things at that moment, you’re most certainly responsible for communicating that in a respectful way. Sit down with your partner and come up with a “code word” that says: “I love you, and respect you enough not to go down this road, and badly need my space right now.” Both partners must respect this therapeutic “time-out” and separate for a short period of time. Use that time to think about what happened and be prepared to initiate a conversation after you’ve had time to calm down and makes sense of the situation. (See Five Ways to Turn Conflict Into Resolution for more details.)
This one really does a lot of damage. Outright verbal contempt and open disrespect will destroy a relationship more quickly than any of the other ways listed in this article. To feel despised by the person you love creates an overwhelming sense of despair and hopelessness. If left unchanged, things will quickly end in either separation or divorce, or for those that stick it out, the onset of mental health issues (depression, anxiety) and self-medicating behaviors (over-eating, over-spending, substance abuse, extra-marital affairs, etc.).
Antidote: Just don’t do it! It is verbal and emotional abuse. Remind yourself that this is the person you fell in love with and try to focus on the positive attributes your partner brings to the relationship. If you honestly believe everything you say about your partner, either seek counseling to fix the problems or get out of the relationship. Scorn and contempt typically present themselves at the very worst point in a relationship. To do nothing at this time is the very worst thing you could do.
Studies show that couples who demonstrate an active interest in one another’s lives have a much higher chance of staying together and more satisfaction in their relationships than couples that don’t. This is largely due to the message that is sent back and forth between partners when showing interest. This message is clear and simple: I love, care and respect you enough to want to be a part of your world.
Equally so, the opposite applies. When a couple fails to show interest in one another the message reads: I don’t love, care and respect you enough to want to be a part of your world. If you don’t communicate genuine interest in your partner on a regular basis, they will feel unimportant and isolated. Consequently, it’s not difficult to understand why couples seek out companionship and attention outside of the relationship. We all need to feel loved and appreciated. Showing interest goes a long, long way toward achieving that.
Antidote: If you’re not showing enough interest in your partner, it’s never too late! Put aside 30 minutes of uninterrupted time every day to catch up, or plan date night once a week (see Five Great Ways Show Your Partner You Love Them). Get involved and ask lots of questions. Be genuine and sincere. You might be surprised at how interesting your partner’s life really is!