As a marriage and family therapist, relationships are very important to me. I have spent years studying and examining just what keeps couples and families together. What makes some work and others fall apart?
There are 3 necessary components to relationship maintenance.
At any given time, at least one of these 3 aspects of relationships is what keeps families and/or couples together. When times get tough, as they inevitably always do, it may be the strong feeling of love that holds you together. Maybe you are very angry at your partner, and it may be the idea of commitment that holds the two of you together. Love is a feeling, you either feel it or you don’t. Commitment is an idea you either believe in it or you don’t.
Communication however is a skill, a behavior or set of behaviors, that has impact on our thoughts (one of them being commitment) and feelings (one of them being love). Communication entails expressing a message through words or body language and listening. For the purpose of this post, I’ll simply focus on the impact of some of our “words”.
If our communication is frequently critical, defensive, blaming or extremely negative, it will create a “cycle of negativity” (Gottman 1994). It is not just that repeated negative communication is unpleasant, it is the impact of this negativity on both people and how they think and feel about each other. Take a look at this simple example: There is a complaint about a problem “I wish we had more money.” Which turns into, “Why don’t you work harder?”(Criticism) Or “If you didn’t spend so much money on needless things we would have more money to do things together.” (Blame) Your partner will inevitably become defensive and often strike back. “I spend my money on things that relax me because I work so hard. Why don’t you work harder?”(Defensiveness and Blame)…See where this is going? More blame, more criticism, more negativity. We have all been in conversations like this, they are natural. This only becomes a problem if it is the norm. If all of your problem solving takes the form of blame, criticism and defensiveness then problems don’t get resolved. They simply come up again and then don’t get resolved again and so on. It leads to feelings of resentment and even contempt. When the amount of negative feelings outweighs the amount of positives feeling a relationship is in danger.
The good news is this is reversible. You can build ways of communicating that resolve conflict and enhance positive thoughts and feelings. So if you are in a committed relationship, and you have concerns about negative communication or conflict that is frequently not resolved, stay tuned. My next blog will give you some advice on how to build positive communication in relationships.