All relationships require effort to start, to maintain, to be responsible to each other, to resolve conflict, to be supportive and to end the relationship if need be. Its realistic to expect relationships to take work at times.
The start of a relationship is often very exciting as the initial love is easy and beautiful. This period of time usually lasts between 3-6 months and each person sees the other thru rose colored glasses either ignoring their faults or not seeing them. All things are wonderful. After this time period, reality sets in and the couple have to get to know the real person and accept all the things that were initially ignored. This may take some effort and communication skills may be needed to be calm and respectful thru this process. Gottman’s 4 horsemen often show up at this time.
The 4 horsemen of communications are criticism, contempt, stonewalling and defensiveness. The Gottmans’ have research showing if this form of communication habit continues, the couple will be separated before 7 years together. How does a couple break out of the “4 Horsemen” habit of communication? It takes conscious effort on both sides to stop. When I work with couples I ask them to pick a word that signals them that the 4 Horsemen have appeared and this often helps them with awareness, as awareness is the first step to change. With criticism Gottman suggests to complain instead of criticizing because criticism is really blaming. Horseman number 2 is contempt which includes many disrespectful words (sarcasm, hostile humor) and body languages messages (eye rolling, sneering) and replace all these with respect and you’re back on track. Defensiveness often shows up with criticism but can also be a victim stance. Gottman says take responsibility for your half of the problem, be respectful and again you are back on track. Stonewalling is the final horseman that is hard on relationships. Gottman says when people get really angry the tendency is to stonewall as anger is a fight and flight response. Take a break from each other and calm down (about ½ an hour) and resume discussions. Make sure you let your partner know you are taking a break for ½ hour to calm down and want to continue talking after that. Avoid the 4 horsemen and you’re half way there.
Responsibility to each other can take some work too and Gottman has many strategies to connect couples and to turn towards to help couples feel they want to support each other. Usually the better communication helps as this brings couples closer when they are respectful.
Resolving conflict can be another area that is tricky and can take some skills and practice. A helpful strategy is to follow “fair fighting rules”. Some of those rules are becoming aware of what the problem is that is bothering you before you have that talk, focusing on one problem at a time, be respectful, watch your language and own your own feelings with “I statements”, no yelling, no stonewalling, take turns talking, and compromise. These rules help couples or any relationship stay on track.
Ending a relationship can be very painful and if you don’t do the work before a breakup you will probably repeat the same pattern all over again so I always recommend counselling if the problems can’t be resolved.
Irene Haire, MC, RCAT, Registered Provisional Psychologist/Registered Art Therapist is in private practice in Edmonton at The GB Building Downstairs-9562- 82 Avenue, 780-232-1055 www.edmontonpsychologistpros.com