Learning to manage differences in opinion compassionately and effectively in your relationship is an essential life skill and it isn’t really that difficult to learn. Ample research shows that how couples behave under pressure is more important in predicting happiness than how they are together in good times – after all, being happy when things are going smoothly is pretty easy! Psychologists Gottman and Gottman and others have identified a number of factors that can emerge under pressure if couples don’t know better, which tend to lead to relationship disaster.
Forewarned is forearmed, so here we go – if you and your partner indulge in these activities it’s time to give them up!
1. Passive aggression
This is a favourite when it comes to dysfunctional anger and we’ve all been guilty of it at some time. It’s when one person won’t engage in a normal way, or won’t even look at their partner because they want to show them how angry they are, kind of punish them, rather than come out with the issue straight away. Passive aggression can take the form of stony silences, cold stares or even furious, silent fits of cleaning. It’s a game that nobody wins.
2. Criticism and contempt
Research has shown that it takes 5 positive loving comments on average, to balance out a negative comment from a partner and restore a sense of trust. That makes criticism a highly ineffective form of communication. Name-calling, eye-rolling or sneering while the other is speaking, effectively invalidating them as they speak, are just street-fighting and the place for that in love is nowhere. Nasty words are memorable and it’s hard to trust someone who’s shown they are willing to belittle you.
Defensiveness is a form of fear, a response to an attack, real or imagined. It can be an imaginary attack because sometimes without realizing, we react defensively to a past figure or memory. We may end up reacting more to our old fears than the here and now. Defensiveness often takes the form of blaming and may escalate across many different topics quickly. When that happens, the real topics are quickly jumbled, E.g., “You didn’t help me with the dishes!” Sets off the response: “Well, you never help me with the floors!” The real issue becomes lost and so does everyone involved!
4. Hurtful secrets
Hurtful secrets erode trust because they nearly always come out somewhere. Sometimes partners who feel unloved or denied in some way by their partner feel justified in looking elsewhere for sex, friendship, excitement, a sense of potency or novelty. While those are important things to have – my experience with counselling couples has taught me that, in general, there is no such thing as a good secret, apart from birthday and Christmas surprises. There are better ways to shake things up in your relationship and easier ways to rediscover passion, power and excitement in your life than through betrayal and the resulting losses.
These 4 predictors of relationship disaster are, in essence, ineffective ways to be angry that result in alienation from the other person – that’s why they’re so disastrous. They set off a spiral away from love and the longer the spiraling continues, the less it matters who started it, or who’s to blame. All that matters is that the spiraling MUST STOP.
So what DO you do to keep your relationship happy and healthy when you find you have differences of opinion?
Listen to one another with your full attention. Get really clear on what your partner is and isn’t saying and ask questions about what they are really hoping for out of the conversation – perhaps it isn’t what you thought.
Check yourself if you’re planning what you’re going to say rather than listening when your partner is speaking.
Ask yourself honestly – ‘Is what I am about to say or do likely to be helpful to this conversation?’
BEFORE you do or say it.
It’s easier on everyone to remain mindful and thoughtful and DO NO HARM emotionally or otherwise, than it is to create tension, hurts and distance, and then have to work your way back from there. We remember nasty comments and mean jibes for a long time. Just never go there.
Keep clear to your objectives. Presumably you’re both in this relationship to love and be loved – always, always behave accordingly and you’ll be on track.
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Just BE the love that you ARE.