Marriages (or romantic / life partnerships) are under increased stress as a result of the weak economy. Many spouses have lost their jobs, or are working longer hours because others at their organizations have. Even if job loss isn’t a factor, money worries are more prominent in many couples situations because of a frayed sense of security and optimism. Unfortunately, many, if not most, of the couples who come to see me about the problems in their relationship do so when it’s too late. Of course, there’s no clear way of knowing in advance whether or not it is too late, but there are a number of indicators that I watch carefully that tend to be predictive:
1) Does the session begin negatively (with blame, sarcasm, or contempt?), focusing exclusively on the problems in the relationship, or is there an attempt to present a more balanced picture? Of course, because the couple is in my office because of problems there will be a natural emphasis on those, but my questioning will attempt to elicit positive aspects of the relationship. If the conversation quickly reverts to focusing on the negative, that’s a warning sign.
2) Are the negative comments about the other primarily complaints or are they criticisms? Complaints are specific: “You didn’t take out the garbage,” “You forgot our anniversary,” “You ignored me when I asked you how your day went.” Criticisms are broader and more generalized, and often totalizing: “You never do the chores you promise to,” “You always forget things,” “You just sit around the house drinking beer”. If criticism, rather than complaint, predominates in a conversation, it’s a major red flag.
3) How is negative feedback received? Defensiveness, counter-blaming, or stonewalling are responses that tend to escalate disagreement and frustration. On the other hand, admitting that the other person’s complaint has at least some validity suggests a willingness to consider the complaint from a less personal, more objective standpoint.
4) Are there indications of contempt for each other? Contempt can take verbal form (insults, ridicule, hostile humor or put-downs), or it can be exhibited through sneering, turning away, or eye-rolling. Contempt is a poisonous dynamic in a relationship, as it conveys disgust and allows virtually no opening for reparative gestures or comments.
A couple recently came to see me and I could tell from the start that the effort to repair the relationship was most probably doomed: she began the session by stating that their goal was “learning how to communicate better” (see my post of July 31, 2010), but she almost immediately began an attack on her boyfriend that humiliated him and of course led him to adopt a defensive posture from which it was very difficult to accept the validity of any of her complaints. Despite my repeatedly pointing out ways in which their interaction reduced the possibility of healing, attack and defensiveness continued – it was such a deeply engrained pattern that one session was certainly not going to alter it significantly. I sadly shared with them my prognosis that the relationship was doomed unless each of them was willing to make fundamental changes, changes to which they paid lip service but, as became clear in the next session, were not being made or even attempted.
I hope that enumerating the danger signals that I see in troubled relationships will prompt you to examine your interactions for indications of such signals. Next week I will post some tips on how to turn around those behaviors most toxic to a relationship’s health.
N.B. A fuller description of the maladaptive behaviors mentioned above can be found in a superb book on relationships: "The Seven Principles that Make Marriage Work" by John Gottman and Nan Silver.