You feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall. You’ve had this same argument countless times but nothing shifts. Things get said, by both of you. Things you only half mean but which really hurt. How do you ever get out of this place? There seems to be only two options: stick through the pain, clinging onto the better days; or walk away.
Neither of those choices can feel healthy or desireable. But when you’re so mired in the arguments and conflicts it’s difficult to see another way through.
So something has to shift, and a great starting place is you. After all, that’s the only part you can control in all this.
The underlying issue
Many of the underlying issues in a relationship, whether it’s about equality, sex, money, fairness, sharing, come back to a difficulty in expressing core needs and wants in a way that can be both heard and accepted by each other, so that you know you are wanted for who you are, not who the other person wants you to be (or you think they want you to be.)
That’s not to say that some underlying behaviours are likely to cause distress or alienation. However, these often have their roots in either not being accepted or heard or not accepting oneself and acting that out on the other person in the relationship, or on children and other close relatives.
When it comes to communicating needs more effectively, there are some practical things you can do which make a real difference.
4 poisonous behaviours
I’ve been reading some great material from Professor John Gotmann from the Gotmann Institute, a leading researcher into relationships. He’s analysed thousands of relationships and distilled what works and doesn’t in relationships into 4 behaviours which really poison a relationship and 3 ways of dealing with those to create a healthier relationship.
The four poisonous behaviours:
Criticism – it’s easy to fall into a pattern of criticising a partner for the perceived shortfalls or mistakes. Once you start criticising, it’s likely you stop getting heard.
You may have legitimate complaints, but these are better expressed as complaints without blame than a criticism.
‘You never put the rubbish out’ – generalisations like this can feel hurtful and overwhelming.
If you own the need, you might say this as:
‘I’ve put the rubbish out everyday this week. I’d like it if we shared this task…’
Defensiveness – if you fall into a defensive position, you stop hearing what’s being said and it means you can get stuck. It’s easy to get defensive when you feel criticised but it doesn’t allow for the possibilty that you may have a shared responsibility for the current situation.
Contempt – Gottman says this is the number one indicator for likely relationship breakdown. When one of you loses respect for the other and starts to belittle them or insult them, you know things have taken a bad turn. Respectful communication of equals is fundamental to a healthy relationship.
If you find yourself slipping into contempt, it can be helpful to think about things you are proud of in your partner or to connect with gratitude for who they are or what they do in your life.
Stonewalling – If you or your partner’s tendency is to shut down in the face of conflict or criticism, it can really make communication nigh on impossible. When someone goes silent, it’s often an indication that they are flooded with overwhelming feelings (such as anxiety, fear, shame, anger) and are struggling to soothe themselves. For the person being blanked, it can be equally stressful.
Gottman’s research suggests that you take a complete break for at least 15 or 20 minutes when this happens, acknowledging that you are feeling overwhelmed. Doing something completely different, rather than ruminating on the argment, can help you reset and be ready to have a more constructive dialogue when you come back together.
Finding a positive way out
So what can you do to build a more healthy relationship where you listen more effectively? Gottman suggests three key areas to work on:
Deepen your understanding of the other person – make it your business to really know who they are, what makes them tick, and this is really important, how they are different from you. To do this you need to ask loads of questions and equally to show vulnerability and disclose about yourself too.
Be atttentive and respond to communication – couples are continually making conscious and unconscious calls for attention and communication. Being aware of these and responding to them can be a major indicator of a successful relationship. The task is to become more aware of and more atttentive to the other person.
Celebrate your partner – show appreciation, talk them up, re-connect with what it is that you find wonderful in the other person and be vocal about it to them, and where appropriate, to others too.
Gottman suggests that one of the best indicators of relationship health is what story you tell about your relationship to others. If it focuses on the good and minimise the negatives, you are likely to be in something that will survive into the long term. If you tell a story of darkness and doom, the opposite may be true.
So how does this all work in counselling? While Gottman’s approach is very valuable at the behavioural level, it’s also really important to work with the causes as well as the symptoms. When you get under the skin of the causes, deeper change can happen.
If someone who comes to see me for counselling is struggling with their relationship, I often start with what their needs are. If you can get to the heart of your needs you can start to develop a language to express them. This takes you away from what the other is or isn’t doing and into the realm of what will support and nourish you in your relationship.
This week’s lifeline
Whether you’re in a relationship or not, writing the story of your relationship and how it currently is along with what you want it to be, can be a helpful way to bring into focus what your needs are.
Take some time quiet time out and have pen and paper to hand.
Imagine you were telling the story of your relationship, how would you relate it? What would be the key events, how would you talk about your partner and they talk about you?
How would you like to see it unfold in the future? What’s positive that you would like to see more of? What’s missing that you would like to see more of?
Put this writing aside for a while and then come back to it again. Does it ring true? What would you change if anything or add?
If you are struggling with your relationship
Sometimes it can be helpful to meet with a professional counsellor or therapist to help you see what’s happening, your part in it and for you to connect with what’s important to you. I offer gentle and supportive relationship counselling and psychotherapy in Totnes, Paignton and Newton Abbott for individuals wanting to find a healthier and happier relationship. If you want to get in touch for a first appointment, you can do so here.
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For more information about John Gottman’s work read here: