Why Your Relationship is Stealthily Unhealthy

If I asked you what your ideal relationship is, you’d likely say something like – to be made a priority, to feel heard, to be best friends, to be accepted unconditionally, to be stood up for, full of respect, based on equality, honesty, and love… the list goes on. Oftentimes our relationships look more like this, though – “You never think about how your behavior affects other people. I don’t believe you’re that forgetful, you’re just selfish!” Sound familiar? It’s criticism – the first of the “four horseman”, and it’s an attack that dismantles your partner. When we think of unhealthy relationships, we often think of the extreme – physical or emotional abuse, dominance, control, or jealousy. Because of this, though, we miss some of the more subtle signs of unhealthiness in our relationship. We also often write them off because they’re so common. The hard to come back from, regrettable things that are said and done are looked over because we think our relationship is for the most part healthy, and everyone makes mistakes. It’s easy to overlook problems when they don’t seem that bad right now. Problems now, though, tend to get worse over time as they are not addressed. That one perpetual argument that you’re gridlocked on, isn’t going to *poof* disappear. Neither partner is wrong, and if the issue holds meaning for one partner, it deserves to be talked about to your partner’s satisfaction even if there’s no true resolution possible. The goal here is not to resolve all problems but to learn how to manage conflict, because one day, your love alone won’t save your relationship – you are going to have to wake up and make a conscious choice to love that person. One day, you may find yourself resenting your partner, and boy – that’s hard to come back from. No worries – your relationship isn’t doomed.  It isn’t conflict that ends a relationship – it’s the consequences of conflict. Let’s take an objective step back to engage in some introspection.

These are some predictors of divorce, and we can only stop them once we acknowledge their presence:

The four horseman

  1. Criticism
    1. Involves attributing an outside problem as within the person, versus a complaint, which is about the thing itself
  2. Contempt
    1. The biggest predictor of divorce, involving mocking, eye rolling, scoffing; implies a sense of superiority over your partner
  3. Defensiveness
    1. Avoiding accountability for a complaint from your partner and putting blame on the other person
  4. Stonewalling
    1. Mentally checking out to avoid emotional arousal, usually when one feels flooded
  • When your life together is filled with tension, you’re going to feel alone, preventing you from being a team.

Turning away rather than turning toward

  • Ignoring small, seemingly meaningless statements or gestures from your partner
    • When attention isn’t given over time, even to small comments (when the person may even be “thinking out loud”), the person gives up trying. Low levels of turning toward (responding or acknowledging things your partner says/does) leads to low bids for attention.
  • Not fully listening to your partner’s stress, including problem solving (instead of just hearing), not siding with your partner or inserting your own opinion rather than validating their feelings, and not asking questions to understand on a deeper level.
    • This causes your partner to not feel heard. When someone doesn’t feel heard, they often repeat themselves. Over time, it’s common to give up trying to be understood.

The failure of repair attempts

  • A repair attempt is any attempt to keep the fight and the emotions from escalating. This can be humor, extending a hand to hold, mentioning taking a break to calm down.The goal isn’t to avoid fights, hurting feelings, or get rid of anger, because it’s all inevitable. Failure to do so is failure to process and repair.

The failure to accept influence

  • We have our core needs that are grounded in who we are, and we have areas of flexibility. Failure to be flexible and accept influence from your partner contributes to gridlock and keeps you from reaching fair compromise.
    • There’s an underlying issue in what is being argued about – failure to accept influence is failure to understand the meaning of it and what value that meaning holds.

Negative sentiment override (NSO)

  • Minimizing pleasant past experiences and maximize unpleasant experiences, perceiving even neutral things as negative.
    • This causes you to develop negative attributions about your partner and the relationship.

Ultimately, remember that if one partner wins the fight, you’re both losing. You’re a team.

Further Reading:



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