How to avoid the routine things that can hurt a relationship

Seven out of 10 problems have no solution, but the way they are faced can make a difference

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“You don’t do anything around the house.”

This is a familiar reproach among couples. Whenever Dr. John Gottman hears someone utter it, he throws up his hands.

Gottman, an American psychologist, has studied romantic relationships for over 40 years. He has published nearly 200 papers and dozens of books on what can ruin them. The main culprits – what he calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – are destructive criticism, defensive attitudes, contempt and evasiveness.

Repeating the phrase “you don’t do anything around the house” results in multiple negative feelings that undermine good vibes at home. To speak in absolutist terms with an accusatory tone damages the esteem of the person being scolded. Subsequently, this opens the doors to defensive or evasive responses.

Expressions like these tend to gradually erode a relationship. Now, while it is easy to fall into these routine attitudes of coexistence, knowing how to identify them is the first step to changing these behaviors and stopping the drift towards catastrophe.

Arguing is fine – fighting is not

All couples have discrepancies and it would be utopian (or perhaps dystopian?) for a couple to never argue. If there is no discussion, it’s likely because conflicts are being avoided. That’s a potential conflict in itself.

A 2015 Gottman Institute study found that couples who argue have a stronger relationship. The question is not so much about the fact that there is disagreement on some issues, but rather the way in which couples disagree. In other words, arguing is not the same as fighting.

Nuances in communication are key to not ruining the day. If we change the “You do nothing around the house” remark to: “I wish you would remember to put the washing machine on. If you prefer, we can make a schedule to divide up the housework,” it’s possible that there can be a resolution instead of accusations and defensiveness. When an earnest complaint is delivered in a friendly tone, a partner’s request is more likely to be taken seriously from the first time it is formulated, rather than when it’s repeated harshly. Repetition and contempt lead to stagnation.

There are two keys to dealing with conflicts as a couple. The first is to understand that a couple is two people going in the same direction: a fight cannot be conceived as a confrontation of one against the other, but rather as both against a problem. The second is to use communication as a means to resolve something, not to win.

If a couple believes that the Four Horsemen are riding nearby and wants to ward them off, they can play a game. Each partner should get a red card and take it out the moment they detect one of the four negative behaviors appearing in the vicinity. In this way, accusations and reproaches can become something fun and a signal to change methods of communication.

Gottman adds another important fact to keep in mind: 69% of couples’ problems have no solution. It is necessary to solve those that do have a remedy (putting the washing machine on is surely one of them) and learn to live with those that do not. A sense of humor can be a helpful resource!

Here are some basic rules for good communication as a couple:

Don’t use the words always or never in a negative context. Remarks like “you always do that” or “you never listen to me” always lead to conflict. Things are not so black and white.

· Speak in the first person about what’s happening. Saying “I feel like this” is better than “you make me feel like this.” The second phrasing can sound accusatory.

· Let the other person finish speaking. It’s important to suppress the urge to interrupt or talk over your partner. This can be tough if someone takes a long time to work out a thought, but patience is a virtue. You need to know when to bite your tongue.

· If you don’t understand something, you need to ask. And ask again if necessary.

Don’t deduce what your partner wants or believes. It’s common to start thinking that you know what’s best for them – but it’s possible that you could be wrong.

Arola Poch is a psychologist and sexologist.

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