It’s quite amazing how often I see couples in my practice who, in the first session, just fight and accuse each other of the most terrible things. When I ask them why they are still together, they tell me “because we love each other, we would like you to help us“. But all I can see is a toxic relationship that is far from easy to fix.
Too often these couples are in argument cycles – when they constantly keep arguing about the same issues. Even if the topic of the arguments does change, the underlying triggers for the fighting are often the same. I explain that failing to address and discuss these issues or concerns can lead to resentment and repressed anger; the relationship can become toxic and ultimately lead to a divorce or a relationship breakdown.
The biggest problem with toxic relationships is that you can’t really recognize them at first and it may take a long time to realize you are in one. The sometimes silly arguments are the result of negative communication patterns, which is when both partners make assumptions or insulting remarks instead of properly listening to each other.
Couples therapists Drs John and Julie Gottman have become famous for their “love lab“. Over two decades they screened, interviewed, and observed hundreds of couples and found their research could predict, with 90 percent accuracy, if a couple was going to stay together or separate. They came up with a metaphor to describe the four main communication styles that, in their opinion, can predict the end of a relationship.
They called them the Four Horsemen:
When you criticise your partner, you attack your partner’s personality rather than his or her behaviour. By blaming the partner for a problem, we usually believe he or she has not met our expectations in some way. In both situations whatever is going wrong, it’s the fault of the other person.
One of the issues my couples often have is the complaint of one of the partners that their sex life has become almost non-existent and it’s all the other person’s fault. There can be many reasons for this, but it has become a couple problem. It’s not always easy to talk about sexual issues, but being criticised doesn’t make the other partner feel like having sex in the first place. I talk to couples who have been so angry and disappointed with each other, they can’t even remember the last time they had sex.
Contempt is having a complete disregard for your partner, the message for him or her is that they are not appreciated, understood or respected. The contemptuous partner knows exactly when to attack from a place of superiority, and mostly does that in private. In the Gottmans’ love lab, contempt was found to cause increased heart rate and blood pressure in the person on the receiving end. It damages the health and wellbeing of the partner. And when the couple has children, this not a safe and secure environment for youngsters to grow up in; it creates insecurity and anxiety they may suffer from into adulthood.
Defensiveness commonly occurs when a person feels attacked, threatened or judged. Some couples can be so focused on being defensive that it becomes automatic, it doesn’t matter what their partner tells them, they are always reacting negatively. Becoming defensive can also be a strategy to deal with pressure. From talking to my clients, I find they often admit they are not really listening properly, sometimes pre-guessing and too often over-reacting. Without proper communication between the partners, it will be very difficult to start solving these problems.
Stonewalling or refusing to answer happens when one of the couple refuses to participate in an interaction. Behaviours include withdrawing from the conversation, leaving the room, or giving the partner the silent treatment. It may be necessary to take a break from a heated argument, but this type of behaviour only worsens rather than diffuses conflict. Disengaging sends a message to the partner that they aren’t longer worth talking to and that is extremely hurtful.
Why is it that the partner who is stonewalling doesn’t understand that this behaviour makes his or her partner simply withdraw emotionally – and who wants to have sex or be intimate with someone who is so cruel?
I tell my clients that being aware of how these toxic behaviors can affect their relationship is the first step to reducing them. Recognizing them as red flags and examining where both their responsibilities lie will help reduce negativity in conflicts. In every act of toxicity, there is an unmet need or expectation, and when they know what these are it becomes easier to resolve them.
The reality is toxic relationships will gradually make you very unhappy and will lower your self-esteem to the point that you don’t remember what it feels like to feel good anymore. But if you can learn to recognize the dangers, you can take steps to make a toxic relationship healthy again.
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This post originally appeared on Linkedin Pulse and was published on July 19, 2017. This article is republished here with permission and updated on June 21, 2021.