Shelley J Whitehead
What are the four relationship destructors?

3 May, 2022

There has been a lot of research into the biggest predictors of divorce and separation. Researchers have studied a myriad of factors including age, finances, geographical location, religion… and have found that there is one thing that consistently and predictably comes out on top: the way in which people communicate, particularly in times of conflict.

Digging a little deeper, it has been shown that there are some very particular styles of communication that consistently point to a relationship that is heading towards a rupture: those that include a high degree of defensiveness, criticism, blame and contempt.

If you’re able to identify these four ‘relationship destructors’ in your own communications, (and see where you can perhaps replace them with healthier behaviours) you’ll have made an important first step towards more harmonious relationships and perhaps learn to nip them in the bud before they cause destruction in your relationship.

Defensiveness

Defensiveness is a form of blame-shifting, where we respond to a perceived criticism with excuses or playing the innocent victim. A defensive reaction often comes from the fear that you are ‘not enough’ and the feeling of injustice. The end result is generally an escalation of conflict rather than a sense of connectedness and understanding between individuals.

In the most extreme form, defensiveness can become what Dr John Gottman calls ‘stonewalling’, where your defences and barriers are so high that you shut down and refuse to interact. (John Gottman is one of the leading psychologists in the field of relationships and has spent decades researching and writing about how to create stable relationships. I can highly recommend his books, including The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples and The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. I have adapted his model – which he calls the ‘four horsemen’ – and often use it in my work). When working with couples I help them to identify what we call ‘survival suit’ behaviour which is a defensive mechanism that keeps them ‘safe’ but disconnected from their partner.

Instead of being defensive we can listen and try to understand the other person’s perspective or simply take accountability where we might have been at fault.

An example of defensiveness:

“You are accusing me of being late but you are always late yourself!”

A healthier alternative:

“I am sorry I’m late”

Criticism

Criticism is where you take a problem and turn it into an attack on someone’s character. Unlike a complaint, which focuses on the problem at hand and can be an important and constructive way of addressing problems and stopping resentment from building up, a criticism goes to the core of someone’s identity and is often hurtful in a deeply personal way.

Instead of throwing out criticism, you can re-focus onto the solution you’d like to achieve.

An example:

“You always put yourself first”

A healthier alternative:

“I would love to feel like a priority”

Blame

When you blame someone else you externalise responsibility, so you are effectively giving your power over to them. Having full accountability for your own part in things, including what you decide to put up with and how you communicate and maintain your boundaries, is a much healthier stance to take than the victim-mentality of finger pointing.

Instead of blaming, you can shift to collective strategising, where you both work on finding solutions in a partnership-minded way. The degree to which we take responsibility determines our success.

An example:

“If you didn’t spend all your money on golf, we could afford to go on a longer holiday”

A healthier alternative:

“It would be good to sit down and work out a holiday budget together, taking into consideration our hobbies”

Contempt

Showing contempt means putting someone down and making them feel inferior. It is one of the most destructive ways of relating and is the single biggest predictor of divorce. There is nothing constructive in this ridiculing, sneering behaviour whether it is verbal (such as name calling or sarcasm) or through our body language (with eye rolling or a scoffing shrug). It’s often the culmination of a long-simmering cauldron of negativity and deep-seated resentment.

Instead of slipping into contempt we can use self-awareness and compassion, to help steer things back in a more positive direction. If contempt is a daily pattern in your relationship, I would recommend that you seek professional help to build connection to stop the cycle.

An example:

“There you go again, playing the victim”

A healthier alternative:

“I think we’re both in a non-resourceful state right now. Let’s grab a cup of tea, take 20 minutes to balance, and then regroup to discuss what we both need and want instead of letting this escalate into negativity”

As with all communications, everything starts with taking responsibility for ourselves. And self-awareness is the critical first step towards this and towards maintaining really healthy boundaries. When you are more aware of potential pitfalls you have a much greater chance of not falling in to them, so I hope these pointers are helpful!

Shelley J Whitehead

P.S. If you’d like to explore the area of healthy communications more, Marshall Rosenberg has written an excellent book called Nonviolent Communication. Dr Sue Johnosn’s book Hold Me Tight is another great resource that I often recommend to my clients. I also touch on this area in my course ‘Navigating a No Fault Separation’, so do take a look at that if you are curious about finding out more!

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