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There isn’t always a perfect answer to resolve relationship arguments. While yearning to remain positive and committed to one another, many couples just strive to find a compromise position and avoid ongoing negativity. John and Julie Gottman’s (1999) extensive study of human relationships in the United States highlight four patterns of behaviour that can be detrimental to happy relationships.
This involves attacking your partner’s character or personality rather than a specific behaviour. This approach is laden with hostility, negativity, accusation and blame. In most cases criticism tends to be levelled through generalisations like ‘you never or you always’. An example of this within relationships might be as follows:
“You’re the type of person who always thinks of yourself first and never of your partner.”
“You shouldn’t ever, ever put food in the recycled bin.”
It’s important here to distinguish between criticism and complaint. Whereas criticism is more global, generalised and personally directed, complaint tends to focus on a specific emotion or incident. Here’s an example of the difference:
Complaint: "I’m disappointed that we don’t go to our favourite restaurant on Saturday nights."
Criticism: "You never take me out anymore. But you always look after yourself."
Contempt within human relationships is a more extreme version of criticism where the intention is specifically to hurt, demean, insult or psychologically abuse your partner. In this approach one partner deliberately hurls insults to undermine his/her partner’s sense of self that he/she is stupid, incompetent, inadequate, disgusting etc. This constitutes psychological abuse and is very damaging to relationships. Contempt can be exhibited through a number of forms such as mockery, name-calling, and insulting humour. An example of such an exchange might be:
“Have you booked the hotel for the wedding at the end of the month?"
"No, because I don’t want to think about the disgusting exhibition you make of yourself at weddings, and that’s what you are, disgusting.”
Frequently when one partner behaves contemptuously towards another, the other learns to protect their sense of self by responding defensively. And while defensiveness is an understandable antidote to feeling besieged in conflict, nevertheless, defensive responses tend to escalate the conflict problem rather than resolve it. Regularly we are unaware of how defensive we have become with our partner. We behave defensively in a number of ways such as making excuses, denying responsibility and cross complaining. An example of defensiveness might look like this:
“Did you have my blue suit cleaned for the wedding?"
"I never said I’d take your suit to the cleaners.”
“I didn’t appreciate you arriving home last night with two of your friends in tow."
"Well I didn’t appreciate you spending all of last weekend in your sister’s.”
Stonewalling frequently occurs when relationships have deteriorated badly and when there’s an emotional disconnect between partners. It’s called ‘stonewalling’ because in many instances it’s like communicating with a stonewall. This can be very disconcerting for the one who is stonewalled. An example of stonewalling would be as follows:
“Do you want to see my new dress for the wedding?"
"What’s for dinner?"
"I really searched high-up and low-down to find this dress."
"I’m going in to watch TV."
"Will you at least talk to me when you come home?"
"Watching TV and thinking about dinner.”
Reflect on your relationship together and identify if you have ever personally criticised your partner rather than levelling your complaint at the issue being discussed! Have you ever been contemptuous, defensive or have you stonewalled your partner? Discuss together what was most hurtful for you when you experienced any of the above!