In over 40 years of research on couples in his “Love Lab” Dr. John Gottman discovered that the two leading causes for divorce are criticism and contempt. In his book Why Marriages Succeed and Fail, he reminds us that criticizing your partner is different than offering a critique or voicing a complaint. The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an attack on the person.
For instance, a complaint is: “I was worried when you didn’t call me. We agreed that we’d check in when one of us was running late.” In comparison, criticism might be: “You never think about me, you’re so selfish.”
Further, Dr. Gottman informs us that the reason why contempt is so damaging to a marriage is that it conveys disrespect. When we communicate in this manner, using sarcasm, ridicule, mimicking, icy tone of voice, or name-calling, we are not being respectful. The goal is to make the other person feel despised or worthless, which almost always backfires or makes the situation worse.
In addition, relationship expert Howard Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Denver, encourages couples to improve their interactions by following four steps. These include: not allowing arguments to escalate, focusing on your partner’s positive qualities rather than attacking negative ones, avoiding negative interpretations of your partner’s comments; and avoiding stonewalling or withdrawing from each other. The strategies below highlight key aspects of Dr. Markman’s and Dr. Gottman’s research by breaking important points down into five essential steps.
5 ways to break the negative cycle of relating to your partner:
1. Stop blaming your partner. Take responsibility for your part in a dispute. According to Dr. John Gottman , talking about specific issues will reap better results than attacking your partner. For instance, a complaint is: “I’m upset because you didn’t tell me about spending money on new clothes. We agreed to be open with each other and money is tight right now.” Versus a criticism such as: “You never tell me the truth. How can I trust you?”
2. Practice resolving conflicts as they arise and avoid stonewalling. Don’t put aside resentments that can destroy your relationship. Experiencing conflict is inevitable and couples who strive to avoid it are at risk of developing stagnant relationships. Further, it’s a good idea to steer clear of being defensive and showing contempt for your partner (rolling your eyes, ridicule, name-calling, etc.). Engage in a conversation with your mate that is productive rather than shutting down. Sometimes couples can benefit from a short break before doing this.
4. Remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities– even as you struggle with their flaws – and express your positive feelings out loud several times each day. Dr. Gottman advises you to nurture fondness and admiration for your partner by searching for common ground rather than insisting on getting your way when you have a disagreement. Listen to their point of view and adopt Gottman’s rule of five- to-one ratio of interactions – meaning for every negative interaction, you need five positive ones.
5. Adopt realistic expectations of marriage and understand that a good committed relationship or marriage requires effort. The fantasy that there is a “perfect person” or soul mate and that good relationships should be easy can be damaging to your commitment to our partner.
The truth is that all couples have problems, even the ones who seem like a perfect match. The thing to keep in mind is that realistic expectations and damage control can keep resentment from building and causing serious problems. The best way to create a relationship built on love, trust, an intimacy is to take responsibility for our own actions and to practice acceptance and compassion for our partner.
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