By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
How can you break the negative pattern of relating that can lead to the demise of your romantic relationship? There’s a lot of advice available to couples about improving communication but not much about reducing negative interactions.
First of all, it’s important to become conscious of your expectations. Dr. Brené Brown writes, “The fastest way for an expectation to morph into shame or resentment is for it to go unnoticed.” Dr. Brown also recommends that we drop our prerequisites for feeling worthy based on conditions – such as having our partner’s approval or a perfect relationship.
In addition, relationship expert Howard Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Denver, encourages couples to improve their interactions by following four steps. These include: not allowing arguments to escalate, focusing on your partner’s positive qualities rather than attacking negative ones, avoiding negative interpretations of your partner’s comments; and avoiding stonewalling or withdrawing from each other. The strategies below highlight key aspects of Dr. Markman’s research (and other experts) by breaking it down into five essential steps.
5 ways to break the negative cycle of relating to your partner:
1. Stop blaming your partner. Take responsibility for your part in a dispute. According to Dr. John Gottman , talking about specific issues will reap better results than attacking your partner. For instance, a complaint is: “I’m upset because you didn’t tell me about spending money on new clothes. We agreed to be open with each other and money is tight right now.” Versus a criticism: “You never tell me the truth. How can I trust you?”
2. Practice resolving conflicts as they arise and avoid stonewalling. Don’t put aside resentments that can destroy your relationship. Experiencing conflict is inevitable and couples who strive to avoid it are at risk of developing stagnant relationships. Dr.John Gottman recommends you avoid defensiveness and showing contempt for your partner (rolling your eyes, ridicule, name-calling, sarcasm, etc.). Engage in a conversation with your partner that is productive rather than shutting down. Sometimes couples can benefit from a short break before doing this.
3. Increase affection and try scheduling sexual intimacy twice a week – even if you’re not in the mood. According to author Dr. Kory Floyd, physical contact releases oxytocin (the bonding hormone) that reduces pain and causes a calming sensation. Studies show that it’s released during sexual orgasm and affectionate touch as well. Physical affection also reduces stress hormones – lowering daily levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
4. Remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities – even as you struggle with their flaws – and express your positive feelings out loud several times each day. Dr. Gottman advises you to nurture fondness and admiration for your partner by searching for common ground rather than insisting on getting your way when you have a disagreement. Listen to their point of view and adopt Gottman’s rule of five- to-one ratio of interactions – meaning for every negative interaction, you need five positive ones.
5. Adopt realistic expectations of marriage and understand that a good committed relationship or marriage requires effort. The fantasy that there is a “perfect person” or soul mate and that good relationships should be easy can be damaging to your commitment to our partner.
The truth is that all couples have problems, even the ones who seem like a perfect match. The thing to keep in mind is that realistic expectations and damage control can keep resentment from building and causing serious problems. The best way to create a relationship built on love, trust, an intimacy is to take responsibility for our own actions and to practice acceptance and compassion for our partner.
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.