Criticism, which is when you attack your partner with something that you’re saying is globally wrong with him or her. For example: “You always ignore me in the afternoons.” “You never care about me.” Over time criticism wears down a relationship and erodes the self-esteem of both partners. It doesn’t make for a happy relationship and is not supportive for a healthy partnership.
There are times when feedback is necessary, but it should not be conveyed in a critical way. For example: “I felt ignored and upset when you didn’t answer me this afternoon.” Feedback is best conveyed using language such as “I think…” or “I feel…”
Defensiveness, which involves warning off a perceived attack. It is about self-justifying, defending or protecting. It may manifest in different ways including:
- Blaming the other person
- Running from the problem
- Diverting attention away from an issue
Have you noticed that the situation is aggravated even more when a disagreement occurs and you start explaining yourself?
The answer is to listen from a place of curiosity and to understand that this is what the other person thinks and feels; it’s your partner’s perception. The most supportive behaviour is ownership on your part and not running away. It is also useful to remember that if you are hungry, angry, lonely or tired, it is best to deal with something at a later time when you can come back together in a calmer manner. It can be helpful to use the word HALT, standing for hungry, angry, lonely or tired to indicate that you need to continue a discussion at another time.
Contempt, which is a very unhealthy behaviour to have in a relationship and is crippling to self-esteem. It involves putting yourself on a higher plane than your partner, thinking that your beliefs are right and his or hers are wrong, regarding yourself as better and constantly belittling your partner.
In the long-term this causes extreme damage to self-esteem, causes distancing within a relationship and makes it difficult for a couple to connect on an equal basis. What is crucial is that you do not put yourself above anyone else. Everyone is entitled to their beliefs as we are all individuals.
Stonewalling behaviour involves one partner refusing to talk to the other, giving the silent treatment for hours or days or looking down so as not to connect. It’s a bit like a five-year old holding her breath. Behaving in an adult, grown-up way and deciding to not adopt stonewalling behaviour is a choice and one that will benefit your relationship.
These four behaviours can be worked on. The process involves becoming aware and changing them. Remember that when a relationship goes off the rails or you are colliding with your partner, it takes one of you to do something differently. If you find yourself using some of the destructive behaviours it is important to heal wounds from the past, especially if you had a critical or defensive parent as you may have learnt this behaviour from them. Sometimes seeking the support of a professional is well worth the effort.