Top experts on relationships weigh in on advice to improve your relationships
Relationships are complex. It is why couples therapy and relationship advice exists in the first place. We each bring our own personalities, past experiences and visions for the future. Some things like favorite music, sense of humor, financial goals can be strikingly similar. Other times, they couldn’t be more different. No matter what the differences are, renowned researcher on relationships and marriage, John Gottman found there are four essential things that could destroy your relationship.
Relationship Advice – Four Things That’ll Ruin Your Relationship (and what to do about them!)
Feedback or a complaint tend to be related to a specific event or action. For example, “I really felt embarrassed when you made that joke about me in front of your parents.” Or “When I asked you if I looked fat in that dress, I wasn’t asking for the truth!” On the other hand, criticism is a more global, blanket statement about who a person is. “You don’t care about other people’s feelings.”
No one wants to feel that the essential core of who they are attacked. Criticism can easily lead to defensiveness (kindly see #3). A more productive way of communicating could be, “I feel like you don’t care about my feelings.” Couples can learn to communicate more clearly and accurately to curtail criticism.
Contempt is like criticism on steroids. While criticism is a comment or series of comments, contempt is a whole view of a disrespect of a person. As our friend Merriam-Webster defines it, contempt is “the act of despising.” Sarcasm, mocking, eye-rolling, name-calling are all signs of contempt. According to the Gottman Institute, contempt is “the single greatest predictor of divorce.”
A painful example is, “You’re such a baby. Why do you always have to run to your friends when you’re upset. Try acting like an adult like the rest of us.” A more helpful approach is, “Look, I know your family is important to you. I just feel like you’re ganging up on me.”
Exchanges that involve defensiveness can feel like you’re on a relationship roller coaster. It’s really common to get defensive when being criticized. It is rarely productive and only leads both people feeling dizzy with anger and/or queasy with regret.
Defensiveness is a protective measure to (1) justify our behavior, (2) position ourselves as the victim, and (3) make the other person to blame for something, anything. The problem is, it hardly ever works and often causes things to get worse. Now the person who pointed out the issue not only feels unheard, but often responds with a defensiveness remark. Criticism leads to defensiveness and criticism that leads to … Be sure your seat belt is securely fashioned because away we go!
Examples of defensiveness include:
Critical Person #1 – “You always leave your plates on the counter. Do I look like the maid?”
Defensive Person #2 – “What? Like I don’t work hard too? It’s not like you ever vacuum.”
Person #1 – “Really? And how am I supposed to vacuum when your shoes and clothes are all over the place?”
An alternative response could be:
Person #1 – “When you leave your plates on the counter, I feel like the maid.”
Person #2 – “I’m sorry. I’m always running late. I usually plan to do it after work, but by the time I get home its done. Would you be open to me doing them after work?”
Person #1 – “Not really. ‘Cause then the kitchen smells. But maybe I could do the dishes and you could vacuum. You know I hate to vacuum. Want to watch Grey’s Anatomy?”
Identifying the cause of defensiveness, improving communication, and moving into a stance of appreciation can go a long way to decreasing conflict, preserving your relationship and getting off that roller coaster.
Where defensiveness can happen when a person feels criticized, stonewalling is the often the response to contempt. It can cause health issues and certain relationship issues. Stonewalling is a way of evading the ridicule or sarcastic attack by being uncooperative, disengaged or focused elsewhere. Being on the receiving end of contempt can be incredibly painful and emotionally overwhelming.
Who wants to feel despised? Anyone? Ignoring, overly focusing on chores, retreating to a different place in the house are all measures to decrease pain. Sadly, stonewalling can become a bad habit that creates more and more emotional distance between people. One possible solution: start to find ways to create bridges. Connect over pleasurable things that have nothing to do with your relationship and everything to do with enjoying time together.
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Addressing patterns of contempt, learning strategies for decreasing the emotional intensity and eliminating stonewalling can strengthen connection and satisfaction in relationships.