Relationships are difficult. Just do a quick google search on building healthy relationships and you will find millions of articles, blogs, books on this very subject. Despite all the literature and content that can be found on how to build healthier relationships—it is still one of those things that is hard for most of us to get right. The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought on even more stress and dysfunction for relationships in the United States.
So how do you find out if your relationship is unhealthy? Usually, you have a pretty good sense of it. If you feel unhappy with your partner most of the time, or if you and your partner constantly argue and are not able to resolve those arguments—it is a good indicator that something is not right. Are you having more and more thoughts about “separation” or “divorce”? this is an indicator that your relationship is not in a good place.
Knowing if your relationship is unhealthy or not can sometimes be difficult to assess. This is especially true if you were brought up in an environment with unhealthy relationships around you. Having been exposed to unhealthy patterns of communication for most of your life can make you feel that this is normal in relationships.
One of the first steps to take if you are unhappy in your relationship with your partner is to assess if there are unhealthy patterns. Research by The Gottman Institute has shown that there are 4 traits or patterns of interaction that are key indicators of unhealthiness in the relationship. John Gottman calls these patterns The 4 horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The 4 traits are Criticisms, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.
There is a difference between complaining and criticisms. Complaining can be healthy when done effectively. The use of “I-statements” and offering a solution after the complaint can lead to good problem-solving. Complaining is simply identifying that something is not working and suggesting a change by providing a solution to the problem.
A Criticism is an attack on your partner. Criticisms make your partner feel rejected, hurt, and attacked. Criticisms may feel small in the beginning however they are harmful and can lead to more damaging communication later in the relationship.
Defensiveness is a response to criticism. We use it to protect ourselves from feeling blamed or at fault. Defensiveness is sometimes expressed by blaming your partner for a problem while not taking any accountability or ownership yourself.
Excuses can tell your partner that you don’t take their concerns seriously and that you won’t take responsibility for your mistakes. This can lead to more defensiveness and arguments. If your goal is to argue less, defensiveness will not help you. It will only worsen your situation.
Contempt is communication that is considered “mean”. Examples of when we use contempt are:
· we treat others with disrespect
· we mock them with sarcasm
· we ridicule our partner
· we call them names
· we mimic or use body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing.
Contempt can make you partner feel like you dislike them as a person and can make them feel worthless. Contempt is the single greatest predictor of separation in relationships. If you notice this in your relationship, it must be eliminated.
Stonewalling occurs when you stop talking to your partner. You shut down or walk out. This is usually a response to contempt.
Rather than facing the issue by communicating with your partner, you tune-out, turn away, act busy, or distract yourself with another activity. Your partner feels ignored and as if you don’t care enough to deal with the problem.
Stonewalling starts to show up in relationships when there has been a lot of experiences of contempt.
If you notice these traits show up in your relationship, it is best to begin working on building healthier forms of communication. I would recommend you begin working on these issues by learning more about healthy communication. Although literature is a good place to start working on these issues, some couples may need to seek out therapy to be able to change these patterns of interaction.
Book Recommendations to begin working on your relationship: