Keys to Reengaging with Your Love

Over the past several months we’ve been discussing the red flags that John Gottman identified in his research that indicate distressed relationships.  Today we’ll be ending this series with the fifth and final indicator, which is often the death knell for a relationship: stonewalling.  (And listen up guys, because men tend to use this strategy more often than women when they’re in an unhappy situation.)

Stonewalling is the emotional withdrawal from an interaction or conflict.  It occurs when one partner becomes so physiologically overwhelmed (flooded) by painful emotions that he/she can’t see a way out, and, in response, completely disengages from the interaction by checking out of the conversation.  He/She literally appears to be disinterested in the conversation, tuning out or looking away or down in silence.

Clearly, stonewalling is not a productive way to work through a problem.

In order for stonewallers to reengage, they need to take a break from the distressing situation. They need to give themselves a chance to calm down and regroup.  Taking a break doesn’t mean that the discussion is over; it just means that the current line of communication isn’t working and a new strategy needs to be implemented when the parties are calm.

When overwhelmed, the partner who stonewalls can break this pattern by saying something like, “Honey, I’m feeling emotionally flooded right now and I need to take a break from this conversation.  I promise you that we can continue this discussion when we’ve both calmed down.”  This way the stonewaller acknowledges the situation and reassures his/her partner that he/she will return to the conversation; the subject won’t be permanently avoided.

During the break, the stonewaller should use the time as an opportunity to soothe and calm him/herself, not to continue ruminating on the problem or the partner’s faults and mistakes.  Specifically, the time should be used to:

  • Practice deep breathing
  • Imagine a calm and relaxed scene
  • Practice progressive muscle relaxation
  • Do something for at least 20 minutes to distract yourself from the fight (read, listen to music, go for a walk)

Lastly, remember that your partner is your ally (hopefully).  Work together during periods of non-conflict to agree on a withdrawal signal or cue that you can use during a fight.  Help one another learn to identify the signs that one of you is becoming emotionally flooded and agree to suggest a break rather than escalating a fight.  This will keep you and your partner united and focused on repairing after a fight, and help ensure that your relationship is a safe and emotionally fulfilling place to be.

After all this talk about what makes relationships fail, in the next few months we’ll be turning our attention to the things that make relationships successful.  Stay tuned for next month’s article when we start this series with the magic ratio that makes love last.  Until then, I hope you’ll practice loving the people closest to you and make your relationships great!

Prioritizing Love

This month we’re going to talk about a relationship destroying tactic that I wish didn’t exist: belligerence.  Belligerence, as I mentioned last month, is a close cousin to contempt.  It is another powerful predictor of divorce because it erodes trust, intimacy, and friendship, driving the partner on the receiving end to withdraw from the relationship.

Belligerence is hostile and combative behavior that attempts to demonstrate the assertion of power.  It can take the form of threats, name calling, bullying, teasing, or dares.  Rather than working to solve problems and foster love, the belligerent partner escalates conflict by using aggressive anger, ignoring their partner, or repeatedly interrupting, provoking, and accusing with “you” statements.

Sounds awful right?  It is.  I wish I could tell you that I have never met couples who behave in this manner towards one another, but I’d be lying if I did.

You’re probably wondering if anything can be done to restore harmony for these couples.  Fortunately, the answer is yes!  Couples who struggle with contempt and belligerence benefit from:

  • Acknowledging that perhaps an argument has gotten off track
  • Starting the discussion over after a cool down period
  • Prioritizing attempts to repair the relationship during and after a fight
  • Focusing on sharing feelings honestly
  • Taking one’s partner’s feelings into account
  • Sharing power and decision making

Love cannot flourish when contempt and belligerence have taken up permanent residence in a  relationship.  Couples who struggle with these issues will need to learn new communication skills and manage the difficult emotions that relationships can often evoke.  Stopping this cycle  is hard work.  But I have seen couples make monumental changes and restore their love and commitment to one another.

Stay tuned for next month’s article when I focus on the last intimacy destroying tactic that often signals the end for love.  Until then, please focus on being kind and loving to one another.

Making Relationships Thrive…Not Just Survive

Over the past two months we have discussed two out of the four intimacy destroying tactics John Gottman, Ph.D., identifies in his research: defensiveness and criticism. This month we’re moving on to the third, contempt, which is the greatest predictor of divorce.

Contemptuous statements are ones in which the speaker insinuates that he or she is in a position of superiority. Contempt conveys disdain for the other party and is often driven by long-standing negative attitudes and thoughts about one’s partner that are compounded by years of unresolved problems.

Contempt may also be expressed non-verbally, such as with eye rolling, sighing, sneering, and smirking.

Making a conscious effort to appreciate and respect your partner is the antidote to contempt.

Here are a couple of examples of contemptuous statements and their antidotes:

Example 1: “You always go shopping and spend money when you already have a closet full of clothes.” (Underlying message:” You’re an irresponsible and selfish person and I’m not.”)
Appreciation and Respect Solution: “That dress looks beautiful on you, but I’m concerned it is too expensive. I’d appreciate if we could sit down and talk about our long-term financial goals and figure out how much we can reasonably afford to budget for clothing. When can we meet?”

Example 2: “Do you have any idea how lucky you are? You come home every night and a hot meal is just magically waiting for you without having to lift a finger! Next time why don’t you make dinner yourself!” (Underlying message: “You’re ungrateful, lazy and spoiled and I do everything.”)
Appreciation and Respect Solution: “Hey Babe, I’d love to go to that new Thai restaurant with you Thursday night after my long work day so I don’t have to worry about preparing dinner. What do you think about making it a date night?”

Take an honest look at the underlying messages you deliver to your partner. Do you convey respect and appreciation? Or, are you secretly harboring resentments and ruminating on his or her negative traits? You can begin developing a culture of appreciation and respect in your relationship by making these simple lists daily:

• Identify five things that you love, admire, and appreciate about your partner
• Identify five things your partner did today that were thoughtful, generous, or sensitive

Use these exercises with anyone in your life who you might have negative thoughts about, not just in romantic relationships. And, you might even get bonus points for telling people the positive things you think about them. Go ahead! Give it a try and see if you can deepen and improve the relationships in your life!

I’ll be back next month to talk about another communication style that happens to be a close cousin to contempt and is equally as deadly to relationships. Until then, be well and love one another!

The Power of Positive Requests

In my last newsletter we discussed the first of four communication styles that researcher John Gottman, Ph.D., identified as destructive to intimacy: defensiveness. Today we’ll be discussing a second problematic style: criticism.

Criticism, which is more often used by women then men, is the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes. Often times criticisms may be stated as a complaint, but criticisms are really veiled swipes at the perceived defects in the other party’s personality. While some people may call criticism “constructive,” I’ve never met a person (including myself) who doesn’t feel hurt by a criticism. And when people are repeatedly hurt by criticism, intimacy is eroded and relationships suffer.

For example, the statement “You never take out the trash even though I’ve asked you a million times” is a criticism because the underlying message is actually, “You’re a lazy bum and you never help out around the house.” While there might be some elements of truth in this statement, it is doubtful that it’s entirely true.

As an alternative, try this three-step approach the next time you feel triggered to criticize someone:

1. I feel… (use an actual feeling word here, such as angry, irritated, frustrated, etc.)
2. About what… (clarify what is bothering you)
3. I need… (state specifically what you would like/want and avoid stating what you don’t want)

With these steps in mind, we can restate the above criticism as follows: “I feel frustrated when you tell me that you’re going to take out the trash and you don’t follow through. I would appreciate it if you would take out the trash right now.” This request demonstrates that the person who would have otherwise criticized is able to contain his/her frustrations and deliver a respectful statement and request to the listener.

If you’re not clear about what you feel or need, talk it over with a trusted friend or a professional before delivering your new statement. Evaluate the outcome of your efforts and refine your strategy as needed. I’m hopeful that this approach will help you cultivate more meaningful and respectful relationships of all kinds.

Stay tuned for next month’s article when we discuss another intimacy-destroying tactic. Until then, be well and love one another!

The Hidden Gifts of Taking Responsibility

Last month I challenged you to take a look at the level of fulfillment you receive from your relationship and I promised that we would then turn to discussing four communication patterns that can be destructive to intimacy. So, let’s get started!

In his over forty years of marriage research, John Gottman, Ph.D., identified four distinct styles of communication that contribute to the destruction of intimacy. The first style we’re going to explore is defensiveness. Defensiveness, which can take the form of innocent victimhood or righteous indignation, is characterized by any effort to protect oneself from a perceived harm or danger. And while defensiveness may be a response to a criticism (more about criticism in the future), the defensive communicator is really saying, “I’m not to blame here” or “That’s not my fault.” It’s a sneaky tactic that allows the communicator to redirect fault.

Although it’s rarely easy in relationships, it is our job to take responsibility for our part in things. And that is exactly the antidote to defensiveness: taking responsibility. Rather than responding to a perceived threat in a defensive manner, the partner who wants to respond defensively has a golden learning opportunity. This is his/her big chance to stop, reflect on the situation, and clarify “What is my part in this exchange” or “What am I responsible for here.” You may only be responsible for a part of the problem, but that’s your part to own and focus on improving.

You may be a great communicator, but there are times when we all get defensive. So, if you find yourself wanting to respond defensively to your partner (or friend, family member, boss, etc.), stop yourself from becoming reactive and take a few minutes to examine the situation. Identify what your responsibility is in the scenario. Share your part and any improvements you are willing to make. This way you’ll work towards transforming what could have become a gigantic and painful argument into a productive conversation which can lead to greater compromise and understanding.

See you next month when we tackle another intimacy destroying tactic! Did you see the hint to it above? Until then, be well and love one another!