Have you found yourself wondering: Is my relationship about to end? Are we finished?
These are hard and painful questions, but ones that are unfortunately super common. So how can you tell if your relationship is on the rocks? How can you tell if it’s needing some serious relational surgery?
There are actually lots of red flags that suggest a relationship is starting to drown. Some of these are similar to the red flags in a stressed family system which I have spoken about before. Others are more specific to couples. In this article, I want to limit this huge topic to one key area: communication.
The way we speak to each other is absolutely crucial in any relationship, and I have spoken about the power of words elsewhere. To get you thinking though about your communication patterns, below I have outlined some key concepts from John and Julie Gottman. I love their approach and have received some training in their methods. What I really like about their approach is that it is practical and based on heaps of research.
4 Signs Your Relationship is in Trouble
So, the communication traps below are grounded on solid evidence based on thousands of couples. The Gottman’s model explains what they call, “The Four Horsemen”. It’s based on what is called the ‘Four Horseman of the Apocalypse’. The “Apocalypse” is the name given to the end of the world. In other words, when you see these ways of communicating in your relationship, look out; it may be the end!
- Criticism: Most of us are familiar with criticism. It’s not just complaining though, it’s attacking your partner personally. A complaint such as “I’m tired of doing the dishes all the time!” is offloading. While it can be uncomfortable, it’s very different to, “You never clean up after yourself! Why can’t you learn to do this yourself?”. It’s a very blaming approach. This pattern is universal – we all do it and it doesn’t mean it’s the end. However, it can develop into the next horseman.
- Contempt: Contempt is much worse than criticism and John Gottman would say that this is the number one red flag that a relationship is going to die. Contempt is where you treat your partner with harsh disrespect, with a desire to hurt. Often the reason behind contempt is revenge, to make the other person feel worthless. When it gets to this stage, there is name calling and some really hurtful swearing. The anger levels can be high with lots of emotion, or more sulky, dismissing behaviours such as eye rolling, refusing to listen, or other passive-aggressive behaviours. This is often the time where one partner has had enough and just walks out during a fight.
- Defensiveness: This horseman is a friend to the first one. Like the word suggests, defensiveness is about defending ourselves from attack. When someone criticises us (or we think they are), we give a critical response in return because we feel attacked. Basically, you turn it back on the other person. For example, after your partner criticises you for forgetting to pick up the kids, you say in return something like, “Well if you didn’t leave all the housework up to me, I wouldn’t forget!” This often starts some defensiveness in the other person and the cycle continues.
- Stonewalling: Stonewalling is simply building that emotional wall around you. It is when a person shuts down and shuts out their partner. The Gottmans would say that most of the stonewalling is done by the men, and I would agree. Men in particular, get to a particular temperature on their emotional thermometer, and, bang, they shut down and go silent. This is partly due to them being so physically flooded with emotion, that they feel it’s the only option. Sometimes it’s a learnt behaviour. Particularly when there is contempt, and the fighting goes around and around, one or both partners will stonewall sometimes for minutes – sometime for weeks. Not surprisingly, nothing can change when this happens.
3 Ways to Address these Problems
We all do the above to some extent and it doesn’t necessarily mean that your relationship is going to end, but they are still warning signs. What’s the answer then, to these poor communication patterns? The Gottmans discuss this in detail, but here are three key ones from their great work:
- Enhance your Love Maps: By this they mean that you need to get to know your partner’s world, I mean, really know them. Ask them questions about their hopes and dreams and remember their answers. Ask them about the high points and low points of their lives. It’s surprising how even after years of being together, how little we can really know a person. This will change over time too, so the file needs to be updated occasionally!
- Nurture your fondness and admiration: Show fondness and admiration to your partner. As I used to say to my kids, “Use your words!”. Don’t assume your partner knows you appreciate them. Tell them you are proud of them, both in the workplace and in the home. Compliment them for all the little things they do. It might feel a little strange at first but persevere.
- Turn toward each other instead of away: When your partner makes a repair attempt to fix things between you, let them! Turn emotionally and physically towards your partner – don’t hide. Make that connection. Ask questions and rather than stonewall, turn towards each other and face what is happening between both of you. It can be hard at first, but gets easier.
Finally, I want to recommend a great self-help book on relationships; The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver. The ideas above come from that book and it is a great resource (get the latest edition). However, if you would like to meet face to face to explore how negative communication can be changed, I’d love to talk with you at Vision or M1 Psychology.
Author: Dr David Ward, BSocWk, BA., Grad Dip (Couple Thpy), M.Couns., MPhil., PhD.
Dr David Ward is a psychotherapist with over 20 years’ experience, providing therapy to adults, adolescents, children, couples, and families. As a qualified Family Therapist, he can help a family get those stress levels down and guide the family to be the best it can be.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Mt Gravatt on (07) 3088 5422.