For Better or Worse: Healthy Relationships

To be is to Inter-be – Thich Nhat Hanh

When we say the words “for better or for worse”, we hope, with all our hearts, that it is mostly for better. This is part of the struggle that exists in relationships today. Of course, we will always strive for relationships that stay in the “for better” side of that vow but avoiding/denying the “worse” is not healthy and more importantly, not realistic. If we are able to find peace in the mindset that conflict is a natural state and that it does not need to be negative, we can learn to navigate it with less distress.

If we look at it closely, we are always in conflict, not only with ourselves, but with everyone and everything around us. The mindset with which we approach conflict has everything to do with the way we navigate and get through these moments. Acceptance lays the groundwork for us to be more relaxed, open, understanding and flexible while avoidance/confrontation breeds fear, anxiety, defensiveness and anger. Acceptance that conflict is not only a natural but arguably healthy part of relationships, opens us up to being less reactive when these regular moments occur, as well as feel more balanced within these relationships.

In my experience, a lot of couples believe that if they struggle with navigating conflict, they are not meant to be together. This is absolutely not true. We are not enlightened, perfect or born with all the skills to get through relationships unscathed. Most of it is trial and error and the rest, the willingness of ask for help from people who have mastered these skills. Relationship and marriage expert Dr. Gottman, from his extensive research, discovered 4 universal poisons in relationships as well as 7 principles for improving and maintaining the health of your relationship. In this blog, Healthy Relationships, Part 1, I will address the 4 poisons.

1. Criticism – Seems like a complaint but feels like criticism. This is often phrased as a label, creates shame and causes the other person to feel attacked. For ex. “You are a slob”. Instead, if we were to assertively complain, which is the kinder option, it would sound like “I would really appreciate it if you would pick up your clothes and put it in the hamper”

2. Defensiveness – This is very closely connected with criticism. If your partner typically criticizes, it is likely that you will defend and vice versa. It is a pattern of warding off an attack which might show itself in deflection, whining, feeling picked on, changing the topic, pointing out your partners flaws instead etc. The healthier alternative would be to pay attention to what you are hearing and to consider if this is a growth edge that you recognize within yourself or have heard before. This will help you acknowledge and take responsibility for this.

3. Contempt – Often occurs later in relationships, when either person truly believes that they are better than their partner. They believe that they are better looking, smarter and it can manifest in mean statements to one another, for ex. “you are useless” etc. Contempt toward your partner has also been found to negatively affect their immune system. The alternative is to look for, pay attention to and acknowledge the things that you love and admire in your partner. You can even go a step further and share those with your partner consistently.

4. Stonewalling – This is something that happens when we are psychologically soothing ourselves during intense or distressing conversations. When we feel attacked, we tend emotionally and psychologically disengage, but remain physically present. In these situations, our partners think that we are hearing them, when we are not and this can lead to further frustration. The alternative would be to tell your partner that you cannot continue this conversation right now, that you need a break and will resume later. People respond much better when they know what is going on and what to expect.

Having been married for 9 years, I recognize many poisonous moments in my own marriage and that of my clients. I am human and so are all of you, so cut yourself some slack. It is very possible to have a healthy marriage despite having occasional poisonous moments. The most crucial factor is for us to be able to acknowledge that we are not perfect and have the desire to make things better. We can then begin to develop a finer sense of awareness of our unhealthy patterns and work on creating newer healthy ones. In part 2 of this blog, I will address the seven principles of healthy relationships.

PS. The points mentioned in this blog are applicable to relationships of any kind, not just marriage.

Author: Anonymous, Clarity Clinic

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