Every relationship goes through rough patches. Maybe you’ve begun to question whether staying together can make up for the fighting. For some couples, the arguments end, and life returns to normal.
But when you constantly feel hurt, ignored or rejected, it is natural to wonder whether there is something fundamentally wrong with your relationship.
The key to a better relationship is how well you see your needs for emotional connection.
The Problem with Most Advice About Emotions
Most well meant advice on how to handle conflict is hogwash when it comes to dealing with emotions in a healthy way.
When you were growing up, how many times did you hear someone say:
“If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all!”
“If you are right, you never have to say you are, “Sorry.”
“Just ignore them, and they will stop.”
“Stick and stones can break your bones, but names can never hurt you.”
Sometimes we put too much emphasis on being “nice,” at the expense of being genuine. Too often, we’re told to disregard our human pain when in conflict with others. In relationships, we need tools to gently explore and name what we feel inside, or notice in someone else.
Advice that tells us to clam up, deny our own hurt, or hold back instead of speak gently for our feelings is harmful in many ways. It’s especially toxic to relationships.
When we hit a rough patch, we may try to hide our longing to be seen and accepted, until we can’t anymore. Then we explode in frustration. Couples ask, “How can I stop arguing with my spouse? Why can’t we communicate?”
Recognizing the Four Horsemen of Emotional Disconnection
Many of us never learned how to resolve an issue with our partners. We may not recognize warning signs that certain emotions are signs of trouble.
As we get more desperate, we fight what isn’t working. As in any battle, there are casualties — and what gets injured is the relationship.
Dr. John Gottman, a renowned researcher of marriage and relationships, spent years studying patterns of emotional behavior between partners.
Gottman has been able to successfully predict, with accuracy up to 94%, the likelihood a given couple will divorce. He based predictions on the frequency of four common signs of emotional disconnection, what he called “the Four Horsemen” of the apocalypse for a relationship.
They are: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. If unchecked, they can ruin a relationship. But they don’t have to.
Exploring the Tools of Emotional Connection
Yes, you can save your relationship.
Once you recognize the Four Horsemen as they enter into in your arguments or your mind, you can better see them for what they are: misleading guides for riding out a rough patch in your relationship.
Criticism attacks a partner’s personality or habits. Unlike a complaint, which expresses your displeasure with a particular, identifiable action, criticism rejects another’s overall character.
Example: “You don’t care about the people in your life. You are so selfish!”
Try this tool: Curiosity
Why curiosity: Criticism does not turn attention to what you need or want. Neutral curiosity helps. What would happen if you explained your hurt, without placing blame on your partner?
Example: “I am overwhelmed by all these chores. I want your help, but you haven’t offered, and I don’t know what that means. I need to know you care about me. What is going on?”
Contempt is when one person makes fun of another out of spite. It resembles the behavior of a schoolyard bully.
Example: “Look at you! Shoving another piece of cake into your mouth. You look like a pig.”
Try this tool: Compassion
Why Compassion: Replace contempt with expressions of respect and concern for the other person or your relationship.
Example: “I see half the cake is gone. And you’re so quiet lately. I am wondering if you are okay. I’m worried about you.”
Defensiveness occurs as a way to avoid rejection and blame. Instead of apologizing or addressing the hurt and what happened, the accused tries excuses, changing the subject, or criticizing in return.
Example: “No, I didn’t have time to go to the supermarket! I’ve been working all day. Why didn’t you go? You had time to go out and buy that expensive bag without telling me!”
Try This Tool: Admit What Happened
Why admit what you feel instead. Saying how your partner’s experience affects you makes your loved one feel seen and heard. An apology is a great way to let your empathy and concern to shine through.
Example: “I know we both work hard. Sometimes I’m too tired to be as thoughtful as I want to be. Next time I’ll tell you if I can’t make it to the store, or before I buy something expensive.”
Stonewalling can be an act of self-defense, or at times, hostility. It happens when one partner shuts down and either ignores the other person, or refuses to talk about a particular issue.
Example: “Talk to me. Talk to me! Why do you just sit there? Wait, where are you going?”
Try This Tool: Self-Soothing
Why self-soothing: Defeating stonewalling can be a challenge. When conflict implodes into silence, recognize each person needs to calm down.
Humans have an in-born fight or flight response. It changes our body chemistry and shuts down the parts we use to think and talk rationally. Take at least 20 minutes for anger or strong emotions to subside.
Example: “Give me about half an hour to calm down. I care about us, but I need to cool off before I can talk about it.”
Many arguments are not really about the immediate issue, such as errands, chores, spending or your sex life. It’s about the question: “Are you there for me?”
We Care More, Fight Less When We Know We Matter
We need to know we matter to our loved one. Psychologist Dr. Sue Johnson explains it this way:
Too often, what couples do not see is that most fights are really protests over emotional disconnection.
So many of us start life with faulty tools for handling our own emotions, let alone fixing a troubled relationship.
Learning new tools for emotional awareness takes dedication! Working with a licensed therapist can help — especially a therapist trained in Emotionally Focused therapy (EFT). This training helps couples develop tools for noticing disconnection, and offering emotional connection. Disconnection is fixable!
Seeing our own need for connection in our relationship is a great first step. When you notice one of the Four Horsemen moving into your emotional world, you can learn to steer away.
Each partner needs to know the relationship is important to the other. As a couple, you can find new ways to show it. The better you can see and respond to the deeper needs in each other, the happier and smoother your relationship will be.