When we are single, we dream of that perfect partner and relationship and work hard to find that perfect match. So why do we derail things once we are in a relationship? You may be saying to yourself, “It’s not me; it’s my partner.” This is a very common response from people when it comes to talking about relationships, especially when things start to go south. Around 50% of marriages end in divorce, with an even higher divorce rate for second marriages. So why do these happy unions start out so great and end in separation or dissolution of the relationship?
Conflict in relationships has been studied for decades, and research has shown there are four behaviors that couples engage in that predict the likelihood of breaking up. So why, if we know what causes unhealthy, toxic patterns that lead to relationships ending, have we not fixed the problem? The answer is not as simple. The psyche of humans is way more complex than just saying, “Don’t do these 4 things, and you’ll live happily ever after”. We are plagued with trauma patterns, unconscious responses, arrested development with emotions, and the constantly evolving challenges of group dynamics when we are dealing with others. So, add hurt, disappointment, anger, and abandonment triggers during relationship conflict, and you have a recipe for disaster.
In addition to the 4 relationship derailers, I offer 3 tips to work on yourself before you tackle removing these behaviors and patterns from your relationship arsenal.
Tip 1: Recognize it takes two to tango: As easy as it can be to play the victim and not see our role in a relationship, we have one. Even if it’s as innocent as staying silent, the first step is recognizing you are not perfect and are playing a role in every relationship you are in.
Tip 2: Emotional Intelligence is a lifelong journey: Because of the complexity above, remember that our EQ is always evolving as we add new interactions, experiences, and hurts to our story. It would be best if you constantly focused on your self-awareness, self-regulation, and social awareness and regulation. This is not a one-and-done and must be running alongside your other relationship skill-building.
Tip 3: Accountability is key: If you lack accountability, you will struggle to manage your relationship derailers. If you rely on blame and excuses instead of taking ownership and finding solutions, it will be very difficult to manage your toxic relationship patterns.
So, how must you avoid being in a healthier, happier relationship?
The first thing is to avoid CRITICISM. You are headed to bad places when you constantly criticize your partner and their character. It is healthy to share needs and even complaints, but it is not okay to attack who the other person is. If you find yourself being that critical voice to your partner, ask yourself why. Why are you with someone you think and feel these things about? Because that’s not loving someone.
The Fix: Express yourself in simple words and with two steps. Identify what they did or said and identify how it made you feel. That’s it, that’s all. Nothing else needs to be said. No long stories about all the times in the past or dump trucking all the things you’ve been holding on to.
I was worried when you were late and didn’t call or text. And I also felt disappointed and a bit betrayed because we had agreed to communicate if we would be late.
It’s that simple. Nothing else needs to be said.
The second thing to eliminate is CONTEMPT. Contempt builds over time from criticism. When you get to a point where you no longer like your partner or even respect them, then you must hit the brakes immediately. I’m not saying break up, but I am saying this is the number one predictor of divorce and break-ups, and you need to have a plan to repair this right away.
The Fix: Get professional support. If you and your partner are in this space, you will probably need help to get out of it. The practices and behaviors have become patterns, and changing those is not easy. Get the tools you need to repair what’s broken. And right away, you must stop the comments that ooze contempt. If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all until you get the help you need.
The third thing is DEFENSIVENESS. We are humans and wired to protect ourselves, and defensiveness is one of the ways we learn to do that. The problem is that when we blame and make excuses for our behavior, our partner feels dismissed, unheard, and devalued. We wouldn’t want to feel those things, so we must take accountability. It’s okay to have a defensive reaction, but pushing that out into the relationship is not okay. We need to journal, meditate, self-reflect, practice biofeedback, get help, etc.; that is our journey.
The Fix: Accountability and respect must be pillars in your relationship. When you respectfully address conflict and complaints, defensiveness will be unnecessary. The rest is up to you to process. It is critical in every relationship to be able to share feelings and hurts when they happen to avoid derailers one and two. And that means truly listening when we’ve done or said something that has hurt the other person.
The last thing is STONEWALLING. This can be as simple as avoidant body language, the silent treatment (which is toxic, by the way), or physically leaving the room. They are all messages you will not listen to or deal with the conflict. This can stem from control and manipulation issues to trauma responses to plan conflict avoidance. Wherever the behavior comes from, it will derail and eventually destroy your relationship.
The Fix: Call a time-out. When you know you are struggling to communicate effectively, it’s okay to ask for a break to return to the conflict better. But you must return to the conflict. Simply asking for 30 minutes to collect yourself and your thoughts so you can resolve the issues is the healthy way to address feeling overwhelmed by what’s happening. You must own this. It is not your partner's role to identify or manage for you.
As you can see, these 4 derailers feed off each other, and when frequency and intensity increase will start to cause the others. Two people are in the relationship, and both are playing a role. Each person must focus on their emotions and ensure they are taking accountability to start to eliminate these derailers. Your partner and relationship will thank you.