“When you forbid a partner from doing something, you invite them to keep a secret.” - Ellyn Bader
Most of us probably feel our relationship will last forever; you love each other deeply and believe your love will sustain the challenges and obstacles you may face along your life’s journey together. But, eventually, if you don’t know how to navigate the many roadblocks you will encounter as a couple, you may crash and burn. Knowing how to steer away from those danger zones will help sustain your relationship and keep it growing and thriving.
Let’s look at common issues that can kill a relationship and what you can do to avoid them.
Do you lash out at your partner and blame him or her because you are upset, angry or frustrated? Maybe it’s not your partner’s fault that you feel this way, yet, you want to blame someone, so you verbally attack your partner. This is destructive and disrespectful and will fast track your way to killing a relationship if this behavior continues.
When you are feeling like you’re ready to explode, stop, take a moment to collect your thoughts calmly, and choose your words wisely. Avoid “you” statements. You can’t take the words back once you’ve said them. Instead, start by saying, “I feel …,” “I heard you say….,” “I saw it this way….,” “My experience is….” Be gentler with your words, show kindness, and don’t take it out on your partner.
You want this relationship to last and treating your partner with contempt is not the way to a lasting, loving relationship. Think of contempt as standing on a mountain top and declaring what marriage is and is not – in very black and white terms. That is your version of marriage, not necessarily your partner’s.
2. Unspoken expectations
Therapist Marty Klein once said, “couples argue over contracts they never made.” Couples enter a relationship thinking they know and understand each other only to discover many unspoken “contracts” or expectations. They have an implicit contract, not an explicit one. These unspoken expectations can be as simple as who will do the yard work, where to spend the holidays or who will manage the finances. These will create a lot of tension in the relationship until they become spoken expectations.
It’s not too late to come up with a plan. When you encounter these unanticipated, unspoken contracts, talk about them and come up with a plan. You may realize your partner never will cook, but he is happy to do the dishes and clean up the kitchen. There’s the plan.
People get defensive because they don’t want to experience uncomfortable feelings within themselves. It is a form of self-protection. For most of us, defensiveness is a natural response to criticism, complaints and negative feedback. It can escalate an argument and destroy any chance of resolving it. It sends a message to your partner that their experiences or ideas are wrong and you are right. It also prevents couples from listening and connecting with each other. If you put up a wall, even if it’s just to protect yourself from getting hurt, you are not allowing your partner to understand how you feel. A well-meaning defense quickly can turn into a battle where each side is unwilling to give in.
Avoid using criticism and placing blame when you want to share your worries or concerns. Create a supportive environment where you feel comfortable talking honestly and choosing gentle words. Remember, if you tug on one side, your partner will tug on the other and you end up in conflict. Make sure you move in a positive direction so your partner can move in the same way.
If you see the conversation is getting tense and going south fast, stop it and say you want to resume it later when emotions have cooled. Time outs are crucial for all relationships. Place a specific timeframe on when you will talk again and never wait more than 24 hours. The person who needs the time out should be the one to come back and initiate the dialogue again. This way your partner will know you want to resolve the problem in a healthy way.
Are you killing your relationship with the silent treatment instead of expressing how you feel? Have you heard your partner say to you, “You’re not listening to me?” You are experiencing stonewalling (when a person withdraws from a conversation and refuses to address your concerns).
In many cases, when one partner stonewalls another, the conversation is shut down before it even has a chance to begin.
Withdrawing from a partner can be extremely damaging to a relationship over time. While some partners tend to use stonewalling to avoid conflict, it actually causes more issues.
Regardless of the intention of the stonewaller, this behavior communicates the following: “You’re not worth responding to. Your thoughts and feelings don’t matter to me. You don’t matter to me.”
Your partner may be overwhelmed and simply needs to take some time to disengage from a tense and emotional situation. This means you are setting aside your differences temporarily so when you regroup, you will be less tense and emotional, and better equipped to discuss the issue more clearly. During this disengagement time, try to see your partner’s perspective. This may help the two of you work together to resolve the conflict productively and peacefully. It is even OK to ask, “what do you need?” When you inquire with empathy, you may uncover your partner’s concerns because you are focusing on the issue, not the person.
Let your vulnerability show. Sit down with your partner and explain how you feel. Instead of turning away from your partner, turn toward him or her.
Take extra time to share appreciation, for validating your partner’s point of view, and for listening and responding. This will help keep the conversation more positive and support the stonewaller from feeling the need to withdraw.
Couples also may run into these roadblocks:
Fights that never end
When a relationship is starting to crumble, you may find yourself in frequent fights repeatedly over insignificant things. These fights aren’t about being right; in most cases they are about feeling hurt or misunderstood or unloved. Most of what couples fight about isn’t even the real issue. Getting to the hurt and the pain underneath the frustration is where the solution lives.
Habitual criticism can destroy the very foundation of a relationship. Before criticizing, consider the words you are using. Don’t start your sentence with statements like, “you always” or “you never.” Focus on what you want from your partner, instead of what you don’t want.
Be respectful rather than accusatory. Use words like, “I feel,” or “I need.”
Ignoring attempts to connect
When you see your partner is trying to connect with you, but you aren’t in the mood or don’t have time, instead of putting on your blinders, just say, “I’m sorry, this is not a good time, but let’s pick a time. How about in one hour?” And, as noted previously, never wait more than 24 hours.
If you are trying to connect, don’t start the conversation with, “We need to talk right now.” Make an appointment to talk. Use a softer approach and you will be surprised at how effective that can be. Don’t draw a line in the sand.
In conclusion, instead of letting your relationship fail due to common issues that can be
corrected with a little understanding and effort, look deep into yourself and ask if you are bringing your best self into the relationship. Focus on offering daily gestures and expressions of appreciation, kindness, support and love. Becoming a more effective partner is the most efficient way to assure a loving, intimate relationship.
A great weekly exercise to practice is called brags and appreciations. A brag is a stretch you do out of your comfort zone for your partner. An appreciation is anything your partner does that you want to reinforce and acknowledge.
As Carroll Bryant says, “Love is a two-way street constantly under construction.”
Joe Kort, PhD, LMSW, is the founding director of The Center for Relationship and Sexual Health. He has been in practice for more than 30 years. He also is a certified Imago Relationship therapist, a modality designed for couples to enhance their relationship, and for singles to learn relationship skills. He specializes in sexual health therapy, including dysfunctions, out-of-control sexual behavior and sexual identity issues.
To schedule an appointment with Dr. Kort, please call the center at 248.399.7447.
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