In many ways, relationships are ruled by the routines partners establish for themselves. These patterns create a dynamic and a good, healthy partnership, or can subvert a couple’s chances at happiness and longevity.
When I interview couples in my practice during couples counseling sessions, most of them complain about toxic patterns of bickering and criticizing each other. Unfortunately, these patterns often lead to withdrawal and can threaten the stability of their union. For instance, Carolyn and Todd have bitter disagreements about money that cause chronic tension every weekend when they pay bills.
Carolyn puts it like this, “I used to overspend and ran up credit card debit but that was a few years ago. We bicker a lot because Todd doesn’t trust me with money. He micro manages my spending and it feels like he’s controlling me.”
During tough conversations like the one Carolyn and Todd have about money, it’s helpful to choose battles wisely and to distinguish between what is and what isn’t worth making an issue about. Many experts, including author Esther Perel, believe that bickering can lead to the demise of a relationship. It’s like chronic warfare that erodes the quality of a relationship and makes it tough to discuss difficult topics. When dealing with differences with your partner, the key is to listen attentively, understand each other’s perspective, reign in defensiveness, and stop criticizing and blaming each other.
Stop Trying to Prove a Point
In intimate relationships and marriages, one of the biggest hurdles couples face is how to approach difficult conversations without getting defensive or trying to prove a point. This leads to an unfortunate pattern of attack and defensiveness where both partners believe they must prove they’re right and must defend their positions.
Afterall, it takes two people to contribute to a miscommunication or dispute. According to psychologist Dr. Daniel B. Wile, if this pattern continues over time, it can diminish love and respect between partners. The following are ways to curb defensiveness before it becomes a bigger issue.
4 Ways to Curb Defensiveness:
- Keep a calm composure: While it is natural to raise your voice and get agitated when you feel attacked, lower your voice and adopt a friendlier tone. If you feel yourself taking things personally, press the pause button and suggest a 10 to 15-minute break to your partner before continuing a conflictual conversation. You might say “I’m trying to listen but I can feel myself getting defensive. Can we start this conversation again in 15 minutes?
- Listen to your partner’s side of the story and validate them. Instead of focusing on your own agenda and the points, you want to get across, ask your partner what’s bothering them and really listen before responding. When you respond, validate their perspective and use a soft start-up such as “I value your input and I’d love to hear more from you.” Be sure to use good eye contact and reassuring touch to comfort your mate.
- Focus on the issues at hand. When you focus on changing your partner, you miss the opportunity to work together to come up with a solution. You are no longer on the same team. Instead, focus on the issues at hand to meet both of your needs. Stay in the moment and resist the urge to bring up old issues or touch on your partner’s raw spots.
- Take responsibility. If you focus more on your part of the problem, you’ll be less likely to point your finger at your partner or take things personally. Reflect on how your words and actions might make your partner feel and them know that you own your part in a disagreement. By taking responsibility for his part in the dispute, even just a small piece, Todd is validating Carolyn’s feelings and they can begin to restore healthy communication.
In a recent article for his website, writer Kyle Benson, unpacks what he calls “2 Hidden Ways We Sabotage Intimacy in the Relationship We Want.” Benson breaks down what he calls “disconnecting behaviors” that can be at the heart of these destructive patterns and can spell doom in a relationship. Drawing on a laundry list of relatable and all-too-common behaviors — from overworking, withdrawing, drinking, withholding affection or your opinion, to lying and keeping secrets — Benson believes these patterns drive a wedge between couples.
And the most common cause of these challenging patterns? They are the result of “deeply rooted beliefs about ourselves.” In other words, a partner may establish a negative pattern because of an instinct for self-protection, or even diminished sense of self-worth and self-esteem.
Next, Benson tackles a related, but distinct set of behaviors he calls “push[ing] our partners away.” Borne out of a sense fear, these patterns are likely to sabotage a potentially healthy relationship as well. Benson suggests that some people worry that “getting too close” will result in them losing their “freedom” and “individuality.”
The other side of that same coin, according to Benson, is those who fear that being vulnerable and exposing their true selves will turn off their partner and that they won’t be loved for who they are.
In eiter case, the solution to these subversive behaviors is clear: open, honest communication must be supported by equally honest self-evaluation. Indeed, being cognizant of one’s own fear and foibles is one of the biggest keys to unlocking a deeper understanding of a relationship, and only through this self-aware inventory taking, can couples truly avoid the kind of self-sabotage that plagues otherwise promising relationships.
5 strategies for increasing communication and creating loving intimacy:
- Be sure you first understand, and then seek to be understood. Respond to what your partner is really saying in the moment. Be attuned to their experience, more than your own. Listen to their point of view and say something like “I see your point,” even if you disagree with them.
- Freely communicate your admiration and fondness for your partner. You might say, “You are such a special woman (man) and I am lucky to have you as my wife (husband).”
- Catch your partner doing something “right” and compliment him or her for it
- Practice offering mutual gratitude on a regular basis. For instance, you might say, “I’m so grateful that you work so hard and I can see you had a hard day. I’d like to get you some iced tea and hear about how your day went.”
- Turn towards your partner when they make a bid for attention, affection, or any other type of positive communication. Overtures often display themselves in basic but powerful ways such as a smile or pat on the shoulder.
Communicating love and admiration to your partner is a hallmark of courtship, yet as couples settle in to dealing with the stresses of day-to-day life, these comments may start to fade in frequency.
You may not express gratitude for your partner aloud because it may not come naturally. Instead, you might make a big deal over trivial issues and miss the big picture. However, couples who are successful at avoiding divorce and navigating the challenges of marriage, embrace an attitude of “we’re in this together” and are generally positive in their words and actions toward each other.
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s award winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.
Terry’s book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was published by Sounds True in February of 2020.
I’d love to hear from you and answer your questions about relationships, divorce, marriage, and remarriage. Please ask a question here. Thanks! Terry