How can you tell if your relationship is on a precarious path?
Ann Hartlage, PhD, a psychologist at Rush University Medical Center and the director of Rush's Marital and Sex Therapy program, says that it's not hard to recognize. In fact, she says that researcher John Gottman, PhD, has pinpointed several extremely reliable predictors of divorce — so reliable that he says he can observe a couple discussing a problem for just 15 minutes and predict with more than 90 percent accuracy whether they will split up.
Hartlage, who regularly teaches a six-week couples' workshop based on Gottman's research, singled out six of the top red-flag issues she sees frequently in couples she counsels.
Most relationships encounter these scenarios now and then, she says. But healthy — and lasting — partnerships are the ones in which the couples engage in these behaviors less often and are able to repair the damage afterward.
1. You're criticizing more than you're conversing.
You never take out the trash — and, for that matter, you never help me around the house
When you're upset with your partner and start a sentence with "you always" or "you never," it's a pretty good bet that what you're about to say counts as criticism. "When you criticize, you're characterizing the other person rather than talking about your own feelings," says Hartlage.
She recommends the following:
- Starting with a neutral observation ("Hey, you didn't take out the trash today")
- Talking about how it makes you feel ("That makes me feel like you don't care what I say")
- Asking specifically for what you want ("Do you think from now on you could take out the trash every Tuesday and Saturday?").
2. Your defenses get in the way.
Oh, I never take out the trash? Well, maybe if you'd quit nagging me about it, I'd actually get a chance to do it.
Meeting a complaint with an instant counter-complaint never moves the discussion forward constructively, Hartlage points out. Even if your partner is criticizing you, it's important to try to hear what he or she is saying and take some responsibility for your part of the conflict.
3. You withdraw instead of engage.
Fine, whatever, I never take out the trash.
Discussions that grow heated can often speed up until one party gets overwhelmed.
"At a certain point, someone who's being criticized — whether it's in the course of one conversation or a consistent communication pattern — is just going to shut down," says Hartlage. "All they want is to get out of that conversation immediately," either by physically leaving the room or by refusing to talk further.
4. Conversations quickly turn contemptuous.
You're such a slob you don't even care if the trash piles up and the house is a pigsty.
This kind of communication, in which the speaker expresses disgust, engages in name-calling or mocks his or her partner's feelings, can be disastrous to a relationship. "Contempt is like a nuclear level of criticism," Hartlage says, "in which one person puts the other down to a truly damaging degree."
5. You have trouble getting the discussion back on track.
Sure, you always act like you want to listen to what I'm saying but you never actually do.
Often, one partner attempts to steer the conversation back to a productive track — e.g., "Could you say that again? I'm feeling a little defensive here but I really want to listen to what you're saying" — but the other won't get on board. Without participation by both members of the couple, the conversation can't emerge from negativity.
6. You find yourselves rewriting the past.
We never were any good at communicating anyway.
When a relationship is going badly, Hartlage says, one or both partners can have trouble remembering that there was ever anything positive about it. "I'll ask a couple what first attracted them to each other," she says, "and in some cases they won't remember a single thing or they'll say something like, 'Well, I thought you were nice, but obviously I didn't know the real you.' "
The common denominator with these predictors: In each instance, conflict arises and escalates when the partners aren't able to have empathy for the other person's point of view.
The good news, according to Hartlage, is that a therapist can help couples learn strategies for preventing and repairing damaging interactions.