Relationships are tested all the time when life throws curve balls. As much as we’d love for a new family member to bring us closer together, having a baby can actually worsen the sense of an unhappy relationship.
Working in perinatal mental health, I hear a lot of parents talking about their relationship dissatisfaction. I know they are struggling with poor communication, lack of sleep, and adjustments to new responsibilities. One parent is trying to maintain a sense of normalcy, continuing to work long hours to provide financial stability to the family. The other parent is spending hours with their infant intent on keeping their baby alive and thriving. While these goals are both compatible, it’s easy to get lost in our own perspective of what is most important or necessary. During postpartum stages, I hear parents constantly share how much they yearn to feel connected with their partners. They want the security of knowing they have their partner’s love, understanding, and support.
The Four Types of Relationship Conflicts
There are many factors that can create an unhappy relationship; however, I’ll focus on communication struggles for this post. The Gottman Institute recognizes that there are four common trends in relationship conflict, which they’ve coined “the four horsemen”. With decades of research, the Gottman Institute can confirm that the presence of these four conflict styles create and exacerbate unhappy relationships. These communication conflicts can happen to the best of us, but it’s important to recognize when it is an off-chance occurrence versus a continued pattern.
This type of relationship conflict involves one partner expressing criticisms about the other’s personality or defects. Often, with criticism, the angry party will state “you always-” or “you never-” or others forms of extreme language in order to highlight a partner’s inadequacies. Instead of voicing the actual complaint, the focus is instead on attacking your partner’s character to the core. Rather than stating “I feel frustrated that the dishes haven’t been washed tonight,” the angry individual will state, “you are such a lazy slob” or “you always watch TV instead of doing what you promised.” It leaves the other person, whether he or she is in the right or wrong, to feel hurt and assaulted.
When met with criticism, it’s natural that you wish to defend yourself. In an ideal world where our defensiveness is less heightened, we can hear a complaint, take responsibility of our actions, and apologize if necessary. Instead, the hurt partner gets angry and attacks in turn. The argument cycle continues as the other partner then feels blamed and hurt.
There are various ways in which we can become defensive:
- attack back with a critical comment of your own “Well, they’re mostly your dishes from breakfast. What made you so lazy this morning?”
- claim innocence “I rarely watch TV. Why are you bugging me the one time I get to sit down?”
- express righteous indignation “I was going to do it after this show.”
- whine “I’ve had such a long day at work. Can’t you give me a break?”
Contempt is the extreme version of relationship conflict. It is the highest predictor for divorce. When we are being contemptuous, we are genuinely being mean and disrespectful. This includes: name calling, using sarcasm, ridiculing, giving condescending lectures, throwing insults, eye rolling, etc. When we use this form of conflict style, it makes it hard for partners to move past our sense of disgust and superiority towards them.
This form of unhappy relationship conflict involves shutting down or “becoming a stone wall” when our partners express their feelings. This means we offer zero verbal or non-verbal language in response to their comments and questions. Stonewalling is a protective mechanism that attempts to block out rather than take in our partners’ criticisms, defensiveness or contempt. The stonewaller often feels overwhelmed and unable to think clearly or know what do about the situation. Rather than face the conflict, a stonewalling partner may instead tune out, become distracted by other activities, or simply walk away.
Crap! I do some of these things! How do I fix my relationship?
If you happen to fall into some of these conflict styles, don’t worry! We all have moments of falling into these conflict styles. The following suggestions are some ways to improve the situation.
Use gentle and assertive communication
I love the DEARMAN acronym from DBT to help with assertive communication. This acronym helps us make requests or say no in a confident and conflict-reduced fashion. By using a gentle and assertive approach right from the start of a conflict, there is less likelihood for your partner to feel defensive or need to attack or shut down. Speaking assertively can push some of us outside our comfort zone, especially if your tendency is to stone wall and not express your feelings or needs. However, by asking clearly and respectfully, your partner has the opportunity to hear what you would like, and have the chance to negotiate with you on terms that seem manageable for him/her/them.
D= Describe the situation. Use a brief statement that sticks with objective facts. “I noticed there are still dishes in the sink.”
E= Express how you feel. Use an I statement to explain what emotions are showing up for you because of this situation. “I feel upset that the dishes haven’t been done because we had talked about sharing the household chores more equally. I feel disappointed that this task wasn’t completed.”
A= Assert what you want. Be clear about what change you are looking for at this time. “I would like for the dishes to be done after supper.”
R= Reinforce what is in it for the other person to follow through. It’s absolutely fair that you want your partner to “just know” that it’s right thing to do. However, it’s more helpful and efficient to provide a reminder for why it’s important to maintain a specific behaviour or make a change. “I was looking forward to relaxing at the end of the night with you. I’d love to cuddle up to watch some TV rather than waste our short chunk of evening time scrubbing away at dishes.”
M= be Mindful. Don’t use this as an opportunity to throw in twelve other requests. Focus just on this one situation.
A= Appear confident. There is no need to apologize when you are making a request for change.
N= Negotiate. Sometimes your partner will be willing to make a change so long as there is some wiggle room. Be willing to negotiate so that you can both come to a satisfactory middle ground.
Express appreciation and respect regularly
One of the best antidotes for anger in a relationship is to voice appreciation and respect regularly. Are you turning towards your partner and commenting when they do a task you genuinely appreciate? Did you thank them for tidying up the garage or watering the grass this morning? It may seem unnecessary, but check in on the ratio of negative to positive attention that you provide your partner. How often are you expressing factors that you dislike? How often are you taking the time to express things you do like?
Expressing appreciation can also be done through behaviours. Consider small steps that would be helpful for your partner that he/she/they have expressed. Appreciative behaviours should not be grand gestures since this is unsustainable and can only happen so often. Instead, Dr. Gottman recommends “small things often.”
It’s also important during this phase to take note of our partner’s attempts for connection. When they are talking about their day, asking questions, or seeking physical touch, how do you respond? These are opportunities to express fondness, which goes a long way in strengthening your relationship.
Agree on safe time outs
For those who stone wall, it’s hard to problem solve or engage in an effective conversation. Turning away actually seems like the safest thing to do in that moment; however, it drives the other partner mad because they are getting zero feedback about how to move forward. In these situations, it’s important to have a clear conversation with one another on safe ways to ask for space. Perhaps this means stating clearly “I’m feeling overwhelmed. I need a few minutes.” It may mean practising some deep breathing exercises to help calm your body to feel less tense.
Turning your unhappy relationship into a positive relationship
Your baby needs you. No matter what the conflict or how intense it may feel, your baby need its parents to feel safe and secure. Your little one picks up on your emotional cues and recognizes signs of conflict at home. These comments are not meant to scare you but to encourage some introspection on the reality of your relationship. If it truly feels like your conflicts are getting out of control, reach out. Individual therapy can help you understand why you feel so contemptuous towards your partner or why there is a need to stone wall. Couples counselling can soften communication patterns and help you recognize when your partners makes attempts for connection. While conflicts are common, you do not need to be stuck in an unhappy relationship forever.