According to Gottman every relationship contains these 4 difficulties from time to time, but the more you can reduce them in your relationship, the stronger it will become.
While honest conversations are important, criticism can be especially detrimental when it’s targeted at our partner’s character flaws.
Blaming a problem in a relationship on a personality flaw of the partner probably never inspires transformation, only resentment.
For example, saying “You’re so dramatic and never let me get a word in” probably won’t help your partner to change their behaviour. This is partly because it’s really difficult to change your character I mean, where do you even begin to go about not being dramatic any more.
HOW CAN YOU CHANGE THIS?
Instead of criticising a character flaw, try to keep the ciriticism focused on the situation. Also, if you really want something to change, tell your partner exactly what it is about the situation that they need to change. Be specific! This way they aren’t left in the dark, wondering how they can be less dramatic.
For example, you could say something like “I’m upset because I really want you to hear how I feel, please listen to all I have to say before you respond.” This is an easier pill for your partner to swallow, they aren’t being criticised directly, rather you are explaining a situation and telling them what you would like them to do.
This is often expressed through superiority, mockery, rolling your eyes etc.
We’ve all been at the dinner table when one person says to her partner “oh babes, nobody wants to hear that boring story again” or watching someone say “yes” with their words but “no, I don’t care” with their body language as they roll their eyes.
Interestingly, and very sadly, Gottman has found that contempt not only destroys relationships, but it’s correlated with a weakened immune system of the listener. By observing how many times a partner expressed contempt in a fifteen minute discussion, he was able to predict how many infectious illnesses the listening partner would get in the following 4 years.
HOW TO CHANGE THIS?
Understanding the effects (both mental and physical) of contempt on a partner may help to motivate a change in contemptuous behaviour. You and your partner can agree to call one-another out whenever one of you slides back into old contemptuous patterns.
Defensiveness is a natural response to feeling unjustly blamed/attacked. We have a natural instinct for self-preservation which drives defensiveness.
There are two main types of defensiveness:
- INNOCENT VICTIMHOOD: which is when people claim to be mistreated while they are entirely free of fault. For example, you might say something like “I try so hard and it’s never enough for you.”
- RIGHTEOUSLY INDIGNANT: which occurs when people counter-attack and throw criticism right back at their partner to avoid dealing with the initial complaint. For example, saying “well, at least I don’t …”
Not surprisingly, neither approach is good for conflict resolution.
HOW DO YOU CHANGE THIS?
In order to overcome defensiveness, partners need to accept responsibility. This means saying things like “Ok, fair enough” and “Good point, I never thought about it that way”.
This can be particularly difficult for someone with low self-esteem or self-loathing. Even though people who are more defensive may appear to be more conceited or arrogant, they probably have deep-rooted self-esteem difficulties.
You can understand this by viewing defensiveness as a shield to protect you, people with the biggest shields are the ones who feel the most vulnerable and afraid.
Such people might be afraid that by taking responsibility for their actions, they are giving their partner evidence of how worthless/ terrible they truly are. However, the opposite effect tends to be true, by taking responsibility, most partners feel heard and loved and respect one another even more.
This is when you shut down your verbal responses and turn your body away.
Generally when men stonewall they go silent, fold their arms and look down/away from their partners for an extended period of time. When women stonewall on the other hand, they tend to maintain eye-contact, but their eyes glaze over and their body friezes.
Gottman found that when people are stonewalling, they may not look bothered or even interested in the conflict conversations, but actually their bodies are going through flight-or -fight symptoms. The blood flow is diverted out of the brain’s rational problem solving centers and sent to the motoric centers. Their hearts race, their muscles tense, they may shake and feel unable to think clearly. Because they are on high alert, they tend to perceive everything their partner says as an attack towards them.
It’s not difficult to see why it’s unlikely for the conflict to be resolved when the person is in this state.
A person experiencing stonewalling may retreat or withdraw and not want to continue the conflict conversation. This isn’t necessarily to punish their partner, but by being aware of what they are going through internally, we can understand their withdraw as them calming themselves down.
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO CHANGE THIS?
The first step is to learn to identify when you or your partner are stonewalling. Then the best course of action is to take a short time-out. As the body relaxes, the fight-or-flight symptoms will reduce. A cool-down of about thirty minutes can be really helpful for both of you.
It’s not always easy to take a timeout during a conflict discussion, and this is one of the areas where having a couple’s therapist is really beneficial as they can guide you through the process.
Like I said at the beginning, every relationship has these red flags to a certain extent. The main difference between happy and unhappy relationships is that partners in happy relationships don’t sweep these under the rug when they occur, they repair.
If you and your partner are needing to do some repair work on your relationship you can book an online therapy session with me 🖤