I call contempt criticism+. That would be criticism plus a judgment of the person as a whole. Contempt happens in many ways including judgment, sarcasm, and anything that makes a generalized statement about a person's character or behaviors. This is the most damaging of the four things that happen in fights which we have discussed so far.
According to John Gottman, Ph.D., the antidote to contempt is stating our needs. When we make a judgment about somebody, we are actually trying to get our needs met by expressing a desire for the other person to change. The "problem" we run into is that stating a need is not only a more vulnerable act, this also gives the other person the opportunity to reject us! How awful!
This is not as awful as the person feels when they are on the other end of contempt. Contemptuous comments and behaviors (usually passive aggressive) make people feel terrible. When we use contempt, we are usually commenting on the entire person, which can lead to the other person feeling entirely worthless!
When we are hurt and want a need met, it can be very hard to resist the temptation to judge or be contemptuous. However, it is always worth any effort we put forth. Resisting this requires us to stop a minute to find the little wish we have that we are too afraid to share. Sharing this and being willing to be a little vulnerable is the only way for our wish to come true.
Do you struggle with communication in your relationship or know a couple who could use a little help? Have them visit www.tiptoncounseling.com to book an appointment. It is easy and there are immediate openings now!
Stonewalling or taking a break? How do I notice the Difference?
When couples get into arguments, a common behavior that derails effective communication is called stonewalling. This occurs when a person becomes flooded with emotion and chooses to utilize the “flight” portion of the “fight or flight” response.
“Flight” can be anything from actually fleeing the room (maybe with a door slam or middle finger to add emphasis) to giving the “silent treatment.” We have all been there.
It is perfectly reasonable to disengage when you have had too much but it must be done with care in order to preserve the respect and dignity that relationships need. I instruct couples to utilize self-awareness to know when they need a break. Ideally, stepping aside to cool off is done by stating why you can not engage at the moment and a time when to return and try to sort out the problem in a more respectful way.
What typically happens is that couples slam the door shut on communication, usually leaving the other person out in the cold. This comes in several forms including: ignoring, only communicating in disingenuous ways (sarcasm, stubbornness), leaving without saying where you are going or when you will be back, or refusing to acknowledge the other person’s point of view.
These behaviors are harmful to relationships and should be avoided as much as possible. The antidote to stone walling, according to Dr. John Gottman, is to practice self-regulation. Essentially, it is knowing when you are past your limit. Often, it can be measured by a heart rate of 100+ beats per minute. Another way to look at it is knowing personal signs that you know mean you are very angry. Most people have signs like, tightness in the neck or chest, a feeling of heat in the face or abdomen, a deep feeling of dread, etc…
When you can manage it, simply say you need a break and try to meet up again within one hour. This lets the other person know you aren’t abandoning the issue or “getting off easy.” With consent on both sides, a little break can prevent a painful blowout.
The second issue that disrupts effective communication in relationships is defensiveness.
We get defensive when we perceive that we have been “attacked.” For whatever the reason may be, we see what the other person said as a threat to a concept we hold of our self. It is not so much the words the person used (if they use criticism, it can often trigger defensiveness), but how we view the words that were spoken.
How we respond to words we hear has a great deal to due with conditioning, past traumas, and belief systems we’ve developed over time. When any of these are triggered, we can fall quickly into a threat (fight or flight) response. This often makes us want to repel, reject, or evade what the other person said.
The problem with “defending” is that the response is not helpful to the overall problem, and may even make the problem worse. We defend because we suddenly feel unlovable and that feeling is unbearable.
The solution is to take any kind of accountability that you can. While we do not necessarily cause our partner’s to feel a certain way, we do have a responsibility to the relationship to try and validate the other person, because this keeps the line of communication and connection open.
KEY: You can accept your partner’s feelings and be accountable to your part in the problem without being at “fault.”
All defensiveness does is cut off communication. It is useless. Remember you are a worthy person, and help your partner to remember they are also worthy.
The most renown researcher in couples therapy, John Gottman, Ph.D., identified four communication breakdowns and predictors of relationship failure (if allowed to run amuck). These are the four habits that I teach my clients how to identify and avoid. The tricky part is that they are very easy habits to fall into, and typically happen as a natural response to a perceived threat.
Do you ever find yourself saying, “Most of the time, what starts the fight is basically nothing! Sometimes we even forget what we were fighting about.”
This is because the severity of the fight is more related HOW things are presented rather than the content. Gottman figured out that good conflict management is a cornerstone to a long-lasting relationship. What derails good conflict management is what he calls The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Today, I will discuss the first horseman; CRITICISM.
When we feel threatened by our parter, we get flooded with emotions, our heart rate increases, and we tend to go into fight or flight mode. In these moments, it is very hard to be vulnerable and tell the partner that we are hurt. It feels much safer to blame the feelings on the other person's behavior or attributes. Typically, we prefer to express hurt through anger because that is less vulnerable than admitting being hurt.
When we use criticism to express our hurt, we almost always throw our partner into a defensive mindset (which also derails conflict management). Instead of slinging criticism, it is recommended to express what is going on with you, emotionally, or factually, using “I” statements. Next, it is more helpful to express what you need, identifying something positive your partner can do, rather than telling them what to stop doing. Saying to somebody, “I need a hug” is received much better than, “You're never supportive!”
Regulating and owning our own emotions is challenging yet it is a skill that can be developed over time. It may be helpful to use a line I pulled from A Course in Miracles: “I am not upset for the reason I think.” We are generally not upset about the content, but are afraid of the temporary belief that we are unlovable.
What is A Course in Miracles?
Many couples come to therapy struggling to agree on how to share the load of housekeeping. Family background, personality, and other factors come into play in how one tends to contribute to the household duties. It can feel pretty bad when a significant other comes to us with a complaint about a way that we might have done things for many years before the relationship. A war of philosophy might then ensue, with circular debate, keeping anything from getting done, at least without a lot of tension.
Each person in the relationship brings things they like doing and are probably pretty good at. Each person also comes with things they strongly dislike which sap their energy quickly. While a perfect balance is not possible, it is possible to significantly reduce tension by focusing on each other's strengths.
For example, let us say that one partner does not mind, and in fact may like (although they are careful not to admit it) doing laundry and absolutely hates cleaning the cat litter. This person may be willing to do 75% of the laundry if they don't have to clean the cat litter very often. Many people in relationships say to me that they don't want to be left feeling solely responsible for something, however. They like to know that the other person cares and is willing to at least chip in. That is why I came up with the 75/25 rule.
The idea is to find the strengths in each parter, which are likely the things they don't mind or may even like doing. Agree that each partner will take 75% of the load of their strong activities, while both agreeing not to neglect any task completely, and filling in as needed. The other idea here is that for the person who hates cleaning the cat litter, this activity will sap their energy the same as if the other person were doing it 75% of the time. So when we allow for specialization, it allows more to get done with more smiles.
The other thing is to remember to respect the other person because there is no “correct” way to run a household. You are allies and not adversaries in the art of running the home. Some days you will be very good at keeping up, and others, you might let things go so that you may enjoy some quality time together. The trick is to tell the other person how something makes you feel, rather than why it is wrong. Mutual respect of each other's unique points of view tends to keep defenses from derailing a simple logistical agreement.
Why are relationships so hard? One of the reasons is that the person with whom you've chosen to journey represents a mirror; a reflection of yourself. When you get angry at the other person, it is because you are seeing something about yourself in them. As hard as this may be to believe sometimes, it is always the truth. When you decide to commit to a person, you are committing to facing the most vulnerable parts of yourself. When you share deeply with somebody, your flaws (and also your greatest strengths) inevitably surface. It can be frightening to face vulnerability. And when you are frightened, when your core self seems to be threatened, the primitive brain often activates and goes into fight or flight mode. You may see it as something the other person says or does, but your reactions are always due to a “threat” to something within yourself. Herein lies the beauty and necessity of relationships. If you are triggered, it is certainly because there is something inside you that is asking for healing. In your heated moments of yelling, name-calling, etc..., is the little voice inside you saying, “Please, love me. I am so afraid.”
This is why forgiveness is the ultimate calling in any relationship. It is the greatest tool, in my opinion, for leading a happy and healthy life. A relationship presents you with innumerable opportunities to practice, make mistakes, and try again. Forgiveness is the answer to every question. There will always be situations which seem too complex, but with free-flowing love and acceptance, they can be addressed with greater ease. An important thing to remember is that you don't forgive the other person to pardon them from wrongdoing. You forgive to set them free andalsorelease yourself from the burden of holding a grievance. When you choose to forgive, you are forgiving the part of yourself you judged and attributed to the other person. What a loving thing to do for yourself!
Ideally, all of us could let go of grievances right away. It is difficult and we often could use somebody to offer validation and mediate our reactions. Sometimes, a third party is helpful for allowing strong emotions to be brought forth, respected, organized, and reframed. This is how a good couples counselor can help you out of a stuck place in your relationship.
When in doubt, forgive.