Understand the Path to Serious Trouble In Your Relationship, and What To Do About It
What is it that leads a partnership or marriage down the path to separation or divorce? Leading researchers and insights from couples counseling point to similar patterns. Findings from happy relationships can help troubled couples break the pattern and begin healing.
A Pattern Of Blame And Withdrawal Spells Trouble
New insights about the path to divorce comes from Dr. John Gottman, through 40 years of groundbreaking research on marital stability. Dr. Gottman identified a pattern that begins with real or perceived criticism, followed by the other partner’s defensiveness. After a time, the critic becomes contemptuous. The person who is criticized withdraws so much that the behavior is described as “stonewalling.” When this situation goes on long enough, it can spell grave marriage trouble, and partners can decide to move on. This process can happen quickly, or over many years.
Leading couples therapist and author Dr. Sue Johnson describes a similar process. In her own studies of distressed couples, she observed there is often a pursuer/blamer, and a withdrawer. She found the emotions underneath this drama are usually about the sense that the relationship endangers each partner’s ability to feel really loved and secure. The sense of not being accepted or loved by our partner can be a real crisis. Now we know how these findings converge.
The Allure of Blame Comes From a False Belief
From what I’ve seen in other couples, and in my own life, the lure of pursuing, blaming, and/or criticizing is often based on a false belief. It prompts thoughts like: “If I can get my partner to feel guilty enough, if I pile up enough evidence of his or her mistakes, surely he or she will change! It only stands to reason, if I remember and bring up ALL the times he or she failed me, remorse will be so powerful my partner will never want to make that mistake again.”
But of course this backfires. Almost universally, people who feel blamed either counter-attack or retreat. They don’t feel more loving and motivated to help their partner.
This starts a negative cycle. When the blamed partner withdraws or fights back, then the complaining partner feels more and more disappointed, unloved, and angry. The critic may begin to vilify the once beloved partner. Contempt starts to move in. Instead of working as partners in meeting life’s challenges, people stop trusting each other. And being the target of contempt leads to more severe withdrawal, because it’s just so painful.
Where Do False Beliefs and Habits of Criticism Come From?
Sometimes the habit of complaining was modeled by your parents. Maybe no one has ever shown you how to look beyond the complaint or reproach to the needs underneath. Without an alternative, you become defensive. Maybe you were never taught to make requests in a way that invites your partner closer.
How to Change From Criticizing to Using Other Emotions In Response
If you find yourself grumbling in your head or complaining out loud frequently, start listening to yourself. What are you really complaining about? Is it true that your spouse doesn’t see how much you do, and doesn’t appreciate you?
Is it possible that it’s hard for you to say to your spouse, for example, “I’m feeling really pushed between work and getting the kids to activities, and I feel I’m stuck on my own figuring it all out.”
You may find yourself feeling either righteous indignation or martyrdom. Either one is a clear sign that it’s time to examine the feelings underneath, and the beliefs that go with them. These two styles of defensiveness are often learned in your first family, and will make you and your partner miserable.
What Happy Marriages Can Teach Us
What we know now about happy marriages is that they are built and re-built day by day, by emotional responsiveness. When your partner blames or complains, see if you can reach beyond your reaction of self-defense, for empathy. “You sound really upset…mad…alone…scared…pressured.” Be brave enough to risk guessing wrong, because you are still better off trying to be responsive than defensive.
You might be amazed at how working to name the emotions underneath the complaints or withdrawal will calm everyone down so you can have a GOOD conversation.