How can you break the pattern of bitter disputes that can lead to the breakup of a marriage? This is a question that couples often ask me. For instance, Monica, 46, and Jeffrey, 48, seem to have the same intense disputes over and over again and they usually involve their two sons, ages 10 and 12, and how to discipline them. They rarely show appreciation and love for each other and are considering divorce.
According to Dr. John Gottman, many couples end up in a gridlock because they argue about the same things over and over again. These perpetual differences rarely get resolved (or even managed) because people show contempt for each other and say things like “You’re so selfish or so mean.” They literally look down on each other rather than showing love, appreciation and respect.
Dr. Gottman explains that contempt is the leading cause of divorce and the second leading cause of divorce is criticism. In practical terms, this means you blame your partner for the problems in the relationship and attribute them to a flaw in your partner, rather than seeing them as a mutual issue which you both take responsibility for and can work on. Instead adopt an attitude of attitude of “We’re in this together.”
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 research (and Dr. Gottman) by breaking it down into five essential steps.
5 ways to break a pattern of negative communication with your partner:
1. Stop blaming your partner and avoid criticism. Take responsibility for your part in a dispute. According to Dr. John Gottman , who has studied couples in his Love Lab for over 50 years, 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 booking a vacation with your sister. We agreed to be honest with each other and money is a concern due to my hours being cut.” Versus a criticism: “You always lie to me. How can I trust you?”
2. Practice resolving conflicts as they arise rather than 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. Dr.John Gottman recommends you avoid defensiveness and showing contempt for your partner (rolling your eyes, ridicule, name-calling, sarcasm, etc.). Engage in a conversation with your partner that is productive rather than shutting down. Sometimes couples can benefit from a short break before doing this as long as they get back to it within twenty-four hours.
3. Use a soft start up when you bring up an issue: Say how you feel, state the reason you’re upset, and ask for what you need. You can build a culture of appreciation and let your partner know how you feel and what you need to feel better by using “I Statement” rather than “You Statements.” For example, “You never clean up after yourself” is an effective way to communicate (as discussed above in bullet #1).
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.
Keep in mind that all couples have perpetual problems, even the ones who seem like sole mates. The thing to remember is that realistic expectations and better communication 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.
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.