Doing This Can Damage Your Relationship
To strengthen your bond, try this instead.
Posted Jun 30, 2020
It's often the little things in life that can make or break a relationship. The little things are actions we do on a daily basis, habits that can either strengthen or sabotage our relationship.
The thing is, we are often not even aware of the little things that we are repeatedly doing. In our fast-paced culture, many of us race mindlessly through our day in an effort to check items off our to-do lists. We are doing our best just to get through the day (especially during these unsettling times), let alone pay attention to the seemingly small stuff along the way.
Life is a marathon. Steady wins the race.
As the common expression goes, "Life is a marathon, not a series of sprints." So too is a healthy relationship. It's the small, healthy habits we do on a daily basis that add up over time to strengthen our relational muscles and build flexibility.
Successful couples understand that a relationship is an ongoing journey, not a destination. And they regularly practice healthy habits along the way.
When they inevitably encounter bumps and twists along the road, as all couples do, they are able to overcome them and successfully continue their lifelong trek together rather than drift apart.
In contrast, couples that fail to take a long-term perspective of their relationship, and instead continually sprint through their day, often end up burning out and breaking up. They often fall into a pattern of unhealthy habits, experiencing regular small daily collisions, rather than connections, which are corrosive to their bond.
Are you connecting or colliding?
Many couples inadvertently fall into an unhealthy habit of "expressing" rather than "communicating" with one another. They can't understand why they are unable to get their needs met. Each time they reach out to their partner in an attempt to connect, they end up colliding and feel worse off.
Imagine the following scenario:
You return home from a few days away and can't but help notice that the house is a complete mess. The sink is full of dirty dishes. Books and papers are everywhere. And the large item mistakenly ordered from Amazon is still sitting prominently in your living room rather than returned as your spouse promised it would be days ago. You are fuming and feel utterly frustrated. Your spouse enters the room and you spew out the following:
"I can't believe you! Are you kidding me? What the heck have you been doing while I was away? I come home and the place is a disaster! Can't you manage to do anything? You said you would return that item days ago. Instead, you repeatedly ignore my requests. Are you intentionally trying to annoy me? If so, congratulations! You succeeded!"
Instead of your spouse understanding your frustration, apologizing, and comforting you as you had hoped, they shut down and walk out of the room. You can't believe it! Now, you're madder than ever! How dare they walk out on you! The nerve! You shout, "You are so selfish! You only care about yourself!" You go to bed very upset that night feeling baffled and lonelier than ever with your needs unmet.
Has this ever happened to you?
If so, you're not alone. We've all likely been there. While we may understand the frustration of the spouse who came home to a mess, the way she expressed her feelings to her partner might not have been the best way for her to get what she needed.
It's important to understand the difference between "expressing" versus "communicating." Many of us think we are communicating when we are really "expressing" or "emoting." While, of course, we are entitled to feel the way we feel, by expressing these feelings in a dramatic way to our partner, not only do our needs go unmet, we often end up feeling worse and push our partner further away.
That's because when we are in an overly emotional state we often lash out, pointing out everything wrong in our partner. In this accusatory state, our partner may either react defensively or automatically withdraw in an effort to protect himself. Our attempt to connect with him to get our needs met results in a damaging collision.
Instead, try a bit of advice from esteemed psychologists and leading marriage therapists Drs. Julie and John Gottman. We recently had the privilege of sitting down to talk with them about relationships during the pandemic, as part of the 92nd Street Y's Mind Your Health Mental Health Summit, sponsored by Mount Sinai. In our conversation, they gave us a good example of how to communicate with your spouse to get your needs met.
In a nutshell, one of the most important things to do, the Gottmans told us, is to describe yourself, not your partner: "I feel upset that the item wasn't returned. Will you please return it tomorrow?”
It involves the following three steps:
- Say how you feel. I feel something. I'm upset. I'm angry. I'm afraid. It's focused on "I feel." Start with I, rather than you.
- Next, communicate what you're upset about. About what? What's the situation? Not what's wrong about your partner. What's the situation that's leading you to feel upset?
- Say what you do need, rather than what you don't need, to give your partner information to help them to shine for you. When there is a good close relationship people look for ways to shine for each other. So let them know. Give your spouse specifics of what you would like done: e.g., Can you please return that large item to Amazon so that we can have wild crazy sex tonight?
That's a great example of communication rather than emoting, complaining, engaging in name-calling, or focusing on what you don’t want, which gets you nowhere. Remember, your partner is not a mind-reader. And no one wants to be a punching bag, at the receiving end of an onslaught of emotions.
Instead, be kind, focus on how you’re feeling about the situation, and offer a specific solution.
“When couples are trying to express their needs to each other but they do it through talking about what they don't like – criticism, contempt – that only makes their partner feel defensive or want to counterattack,” says Julie Gottman.
For nearly 50 years, the Gottmans have taken out of the lab what successful couples do to create good conflict management. They have translated it into new ways of learning to talk with one another in a gentle and kind way. As a result, couples learn constructive conflict resolution and experience more connection.
In summary, by communicating, not merely expressing, how you're feeling about a particular situation and specifically asking for what you want, you will increase your chances of getting your needs met because your partner will understand why you're upset, what you want, and what they can do. They will also be better able to listen to what you’re saying and take action to please you if you’re calmly communicating rather than complaining.
And in the end, as Julie mentioned, our partners want to please us in all domains of our lives. So let’s all be specific and tell our partners what we want. We might even get more than we expected. In fact, as Julie told us, researchers found that “in heterosexual relationships those who vacuum more get more sex.” So, let’s practice asking for what we want and making it a habit to pitch in around the house. You’ll likely be happier and more satisfied in the long run, getting all your needs met.
Gottman, Julie and John., Pileggi' Pawelski, S., & Pawelski, J. "Relationships in the Pandemic." Mind Your Health Mental Health Summit, June 28th, 2020. 92nd Street Y. New York, NY.
Pileggi Pawelski, S. & Pawelski, J. (2018). Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. New York: TarcherPerigee.