Being in a long-term relationship is challenging. It is inevitable that you will sometimes slip into cycles of withdrawing (sulking or silent treatment) and of being adversarial (defending or attacking). This is your natural fight-or-flight instinct taking hold. How partners cope with these cycles determines the quality of the relationship and, indeed, whether the relationship lasts. Dr John Gottman, a world leader in relationship counselling, can watch newlyweds discuss a disagreement for 3 minutes and predict whether they will stay together with 93% accuracy. What he is observing is how they relate to one another when in an adversarial cycle.
Tracy says to her husband, “You’re a workaholic!”. Her comment begins an adversarial rather than an empathic cycle. It turns her husband, John, into the enemy. John sighs: “I’ve got a lot on right now!” and she retorts, “You’ve always got a lot on!” John snaps back, “You’re always such a nag”. They are in an adversarial cycle which later turns into a withdrawn cycle. Tracy feels resentful, hurt and abandoned, and John feels annoyed, guilty, and alone.
When you receive what looks like criticism from your partner (“You’re a workaholic”), it stings. If you cannot soothe your own emotional pain, you will bite back. Each person stings in reaction to feeling stung, which is what generates an adversarial cycle. A crucial factor determining relationship satisfaction, Gottman says, is a couple’s ability to engage in successful repair attempts (i.e., efforts to reduce the tension) in order to keep such cycles from escalating out of control.
Exclaiming, “You’re a workaholic!” provides Tracy with some satisfaction. However, she ultimately gets more satisfaction by getting herself calm, and saying to John, “I’m ashamed of how lonely I get at night when you bring work home.” She is exposing her own inner struggle from which her initial “You’re a workaholic” emerged. John is moved by Tracy’s willingness to reveal tender and vulnerable feelings in a way that is not blaming him. His heart goes out to her. He shares his own inner struggle: “Yes, I have let this project completely overtake me; it has made me lonely too.” Tracy’s confiding elicits confiding from John, leading to a collaborative or empathic cycle. They fulfil the potential for intimacy deep-rooted in this moment.
When you cannot confide your more vulnerable thoughts or feelings (which may be because you do not know what they are), you often behave in ways that offend your partner. If you don’t find a way to turn your partner into an ally, you get stuck either (1) blurting out criticism and turning your partner into an enemy (an adversarial cycle), or (2) saying nothing at all about your feelings and turning your partner into a stranger (a withdrawn cycle). This is the penalty for failing to perceive the possibility for intimacy. Most couples are repeatedly paying this penalty, since only rarely are they able to come up with a confiding statement.
And yet sometimes it is amazingly simple. Recently, during a stressful and overfull week, my husband said to me, “This is really stressful for both of us. Let’s be kind to each other”. Instantly, I softened. It completely changed the tone to one of alliance and support.
Speaking our vulnerable feelings, as Tracy did in the above example, takes courage, self-awareness, and repeated practice, and is key to resolving conflicts, reconnecting and achieving intimacy. So, take some deep breaths to soothe your hurt, lonely, or frustrated feelings, slow things down, and give it a try. And be patient with yourself. You are probably undoing habits of a lifetime.
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