A large part of my coaching practice is about repairing the damage done to marital relationships in blended families. To a large degree the damage is done by four miserable, relentless characters, that when allowed to move in, cause devastation and destruction to any chance for intimacy and longevity in a marriage (or otherwise committed partnership).
Who are these villains? You’d do well to get to know their characteristics and traits, and learn how to identify them and stop them in their tracks. Once you are introduced to them here, I think you will find them to be familiar to you – they visit all relationships on a regular basis – it’s the couples that allow them to move in that are doomed!
The first villain is CRITICISM. While anyone can have a complaint about what their partner does that they don’t like, once they generalize and criticize their partner, they have overstepped and invited danger to enter their relationship. Having a complaint, like, “I get tired of having to do the dishes all the time, and I get disappointed and frustrated when you leave your dishes in the sink” is understandable, and gives you both a place to work on together. Stating a criticism, like, “You are so thoughtless and lazy! You must be blind to not see that the dishes need to be done! How can you forget to do the dishes, again?!” causes your partner’s character to be attacked and their defenses to go up, and your losing battle has begun. When criticism becomes commonplace, you’ve paved the way to welcome the other villains to enter your home.
The second villain is CONTEMPT. You know it the instant it arrives, in the form of sneers, sarcasm, eye rolling, mockery, cynicism, and hostile humor. The message your partner receives when you invite contempt into the space is that of disgust. You are letting him or her know that you do not value their feelings, thoughts or beliefs. And when your partner treats you in this way, the likelihood of you becoming even more defended and reactive is much greater.
Contempt then invites in the third villain of DEFENSIVENESS. While it looks like you are defending yourself, what you are really doing is blaming your partner instead. You are “passing the experience” right back to them and telling them that they are the problem, not you. That’s what happens when the person is made out to be the problem, instead of the behavior. Once one partner gets defensive, the conflict will continue to escalate, with more criticism and contempt thrown back and forth.
Once these three are allowed to go unchecked and out of control, the fourth and final villain makes its presence known – STONEWALLING. The walls go up and the attacks are met with silence. You know you’re being stonewalled when you keep going on and on, and your partner gives you absolutely no sign that they are listening to you – no eye-contact, no verbal cues, nothing. And if you still don’t get the message, then the stonewalling partner will leave the room completely, ignoring you as you continue to rant and rave. Stonewalling happens when a partner has been so FLOODED by all the negativity thrown at them that they truly cannot take it anymore – they choose this method of defense as the only way to keep themselves safe.
Once all four of these negative interactions become permanent residents in your home, your relationship is being held hostage and you need some serious strategies to combat them!
Action Step: Take some time to honestly assess your marriage or committed partnership in terms of these four “villains”. How present and prevalent are they in your daily life? How often does stonewalling happen in your relationship? These will give you some clues as to the overall health of your partnership.
Resource: For more information about these four negative ways of interacting, I highly recommend the book: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver.