Charged with thunderous energy, some relationships bounce between euphoric highs and “call-the-cops” lows. Fears, hate, infatuations, and steamy make-ups swirl, jumping from one extreme to another, exhausting lovers. All relationships have some drama. Moderate arousal is necessary to keep lovers interested. Most successful relationships lack the necessary drama to excite a cinema audience. The gentle adapting, compromise, and artful solutions isn’t all that thrilling. While high drama gives life to a mini-series, research warns that excessive conflict is strongly associated with relationship dissatisfaction. Happy relationships must ditch the drama, relying on somewhat boring but creative resolutions.
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Relationship turmoil wrecks good relationships. If we want to improve our relationships, we must reign in the drama. Excessive emotional theatrics grates on secure attachment, magnifying uncertainty, and destroying many of the joys of closeness.
Happy relationships must ditch the drama, relying on somewhat boring but creative resolutions.
Healthy marital conflict easily slips from goal focused conversation to ruthless competition, using cutting words that hurt and sever bonds (see Intent to Hurt). Emotional driven conflicts stoop to unthinkable lows, defining success by the flesh damaged from the verbal barbs. When sharp words draw blood, a moment of satisfaction is enjoyed. At least at first. However, later, when the nastiness settles, often regret reminds that the ultimate goal of closeness was forsaken for a momentary notch in the win column. Alan E. Fruzzetti in his book The High Conflict Couple warns that “destructive conflict in couples corrodes relationships and makes both partners miserable” (2006, location 116).
Explosive relationships are complex. The involved individuals are complicated, and the changing dynamics are difficult to predict. Even though research can’t identify single remedy for every couple, we can recognize common factors, beliefs, and histories. Only with an ample understanding can we explore a variety of skills to tame emotions and find creative resolutions. Fruzetti offers hope, suggesting that “with enough practice, conflict can be transformed into closeness and couples can achieve the closeness, friendship, intimacy, peace, and support that brings us joy and reduces our suffering (location 121).
David Schulz and Stanley Rodgers warn, “to close one’s eyes to disagreement and conflict in intimate partnerships, to pretend that a happy marriage is one that is conflict free, and to withdraw from any disagreement is to retard the growth of a partnership” (1980, p. 60).
Couples bring baggage to relationships. We each have basic relationship beliefs, skills, and expectations. Our histories and biological compositions intertwine, forming attachment styles. With this custom bag of tricks, we try to connect. Our chosen partner also carries a bag of relationship goodies. Couples that survive (and flourish) must put together the jigsaw of differences to create intimate connection (see Creating Intimacy).
Neuroticism and Conflict
Personality types matter. Whether we are easy going or overly sensitive, our approach brings blessings and obstacles. Research has found that neuroticism in one or both of the spouses is a consistent predictors of marital distress (McGonagle, Kessler, & Schilling, 1992). Relationship enjoyment is still possible even when neuroticism scores are high. A diagnostic label is just a label, designed to bring more information to the table, understanding our own propensities guides mindful action.
Neuroticism is a trait disposition that experiences high levels of negative affects (anger, anxiety, self-consciousness, irritability, emotional instability, and depression). People with elevated neuroticism scores respond poorly to environmental stress. Mundane events spike stress, ramping up responses. At high levels of arousal, the biological system contracts, narrowing creative responses, focusing on actions that reduce the immediate discomfort. For those scoring high in neuroticism, minor frustrations overwhelm the biological system, igniting dark thoughts and defensive reactions. Partners can practice emotional soothing techniques together, instead of collapsing into a mutual dysregulation, stoking the emotional fire that already burns at high temperatures. The temperaments bring passion to the table. Something that can also bless the relationship when harnessed and protected.
Relationships have high emotional value. Connections ignites highs and triggers lows. The volatility exacerbates fears that prompt frightening perceptions. When emotions are easily triggered, a troublesome cycle begins. The most sensitive meticulously scan the environment for danger; minor events signal loud alarms. A partner’s insignificant misstep incites an internal riot of frightening possibilities, emotions spike, defenses engage, and logic disconnects. Drama ensues and relationship satisfaction wanes.
Relationship Uncertainty and Conflict
Relationship uncertainty prompts vigilance, examining environmental cues for deeper meaning. An underlying fear of abandonment intrudes, disturbing the security necessary for healthy communion. The sufferer conjures demons of pending disaster, disturbing the stillness with constant fears. The lack of foundational security impairs accurate discernment of partner behaviors. Each behavior is scrupulously examined. The anxiously attached constantly engage in a cruel childhood game. Pulling pedals from a flower, they look for an unobtainable answer, “he loves me, he loves me not.” The frightened lover shuffles through conflicting schemas to make sense of confusing data—inner fears constantly discoloring outer reality. Internal torments are expressed with emotional outbursts and solemn withdrawals.
High agitation and misguided expectations create a messy plot that is difficult to navigate. Research links relationship uncertainty to the painful practice of taking conflicts personally (Solomon & Brisini, 2019). Relational irritations pound the psyche as personal affronts. These appraisals magnify normal disagreements into major catastrophes (see Catastrophizing: The Worrying Mind). The omnipresent fear intensifies the threats, igniting defensive reactions that harm rather than protect. The goal of relationship satisfaction and security is sacrificed for the momentary protections of defensive drama.
When fear is ever-present, relationship communication centers on the discomfort. Even calm communication that continually expresses dissatisfaction can be detrimental. When what is wrong dominates conversations, the more important messaging of warmth is lost. We are taught to express ourselves with “I feel that…” followed by the relationship concern. This is helpful advice, avoiding harmful expressions that cause unnecessary harm. However, when partners excessively focus on why the relationship is deficient, the bonds erode, and satisfaction suffers. Relationships need positive communication. Partners need to know the relationship is fulfilling some needs. Many studies report that constant discussion of relationships problems is negatively associated with overall satisfaction (Monk, Basinger, & Abendschein, 2020). A relationship tasked with constantly putting out fires will never flourish.
Destructive Relationship Skills
John M. Gottman, famous for his Seattle love labs, predicts divorce with high accuracy. After monitoring thousands of couples during conflict and following up with the participants years later, he has identified conflict characteristics that destroys bonds and ultimately leads to divorce.
Psychologist Dan Wile wrote, “When choosing a long term partner…you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty, or fifty years. (Gottman, 2015, p.131). We err when we expect that the ‘right partner’ will eliminate conflict. There will always be differences; some can be resolved others must be accepted. Therapist Lori C. Helms aptly warns that “unwanted tagalongs stalk us and infiltrate all our relationships” (2020).
Relationships encounter several interdependence dilemmas. These dilemmas are situations where the immediate well-being of one person is incompatible with the immediate well-being of the partner. John wants Mexican food, but Sally wants a hamburger. Navigating dinner is a simple compromise but when these dilemmas invade critical values (family, religion, child raising) a couple must find creative solutions. Complex negotiations require a cool mind. Successful partnerships walk through these emotional dialogues while constantly checking in with our own and our partners feelings.
While we adapt and change, we are not going to cure partners of their individuality. Our insecurities and personalities persistently remain intact. The strength of our bond isn’t determined by resolving every conflicts (some conflicts remain for the life of the relationship).
While elaborating on relationship dilemmas, Caryl Rusbult, et al. explains, “it is less important that partners enact constructive behaviors than they not enact destructive behaviors” (2004, location 9556). We should avoid hurtful practices with vigor. They damage and healing takes a long time.
Gottman identified four of these tactics that couples should avoid. He named these the four-horsemen. “The four-horsemen usually enter a marriage in the following order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling” (2015, p. 27). The four-horsemen bring heart-pounding drama that breakdowns good feelings.
Pointing out differences is not criticism. We can’t be so sensitive that healthy conversation is not allowed. Fruzzetti reminds that, “problems that can’t be discussed can’t be resolved” (2006, location 250). Gottman’s criticism refers to escalating a disagreement from disappointment to a character attack. Instead of expressing disappointment over the garbage not being taken out, Mary harps on John for being lazy and never contributing to household chores. “Most arguments have deeper, hidden issues that fuel the superficial conflicts” (Gottman, 2015, p. 23). Criticism attacks character using the issue as a convenient as the segue. The original discussion over the garbage quickly morphs into a generalized fight over household chores, conjuring the same emotional reactions from the previous disagreements over this theme. Instead of an unintended drift to an emotional engagement over household chores, talk about the garbage. When discussing the deeper issue of household chores, make this a planned discussion, with care caution.
Repeated criticisms, whether vocalized or not, lead to contempt for your partner.
Gottman names contempt as the most poisonous of the four-horsemen. Contempt is a form of disgust. The revolting feelings for a partner infiltrate verbal and non-verbal communication. Sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor commonly expose the inner repulsion, dismantling the accused’s sense of worth. These attacks provoke strong emotions, giving rise to arousal and protective defenses.
Negative thoughts about a partner simmer. They boil over into contempt. Contempt signal dangerous relationship territory. The bonding compound of positive regard erodes. Healthy relationships interpret a partner’s behavior with a positive narrative. When contempt dominates, these interpretations flip. The once endearing qualities become annoying reminders of differences. Helms counsels, “these differences can tear you apart if that’s all you notice” (2020). When neutral behaviors are perceived as negative, and positive behaviors ignored, the relationship is in trouble. The natural evolution in this escalating war is defensive protections.
Most defensive reactions escalate the conflict. In themed disagreements over chores, children, money or sex, defensive protections enter the conflict earlier. Even an inkling that a reoccurring argument may ensue spikes arousal and defensive stands erect before the first words are exchanged. When memories of hurt decorate a theme, partners begin the discussion primed for conflict, judgements already made, and defensive barriers in place.
“Sometimes you may find that there has been so much conflict between the two of you, so little positive interaction, and so little affection, that you both show up to a situation defensively, or ready to fight, even before anything happens” (Fruzzetti, 2006, Location 695).
The final horseman is the ultimate protection—complete disengagement.
Gottman suggests that a couple cycles through the first three horsemen of criticism, contempt, and defensiveness several times before one or both partners become overwhelmed enough to tune out. However, “by turning away to avoid the fight, one is also avoiding the marriage (2015, p. 33-34). Stonewalling is a protection against heightened arousal from the flooding emotions.
Total unavailability through withdrawing, leaving partners feeling helpless. Stonewalling is not only a defensive protection but a devastating weapon.
In a recent article, researchers wrote “When we believe our partner is receptive, the intensity and frequency of emotional sharing increases (Ruan, Reis et al. 2020). Stonewalling is the antithesis of this—a complete disregard for the emotional life of a partner. Stonewalling exhibits the most dreadful invalidating of a partner’s worth. “Evolutionary and attachment theorist assume that perceived responsiveness to need is the sine qua non of satisfying interpersonal relationships” (Murray, S., Holmes, J., & Collins, N. 2006).
See Emotional Intimacy for more on this topic.
The good news for drama infused relationships is that the attachment is still full of energy. The interactions signal life, and with life there is hope. Typically, the end of a relationship is preceded by giving up on joint resolutions, leading parallel lives, and loneliness.
Saving the Relationship
Fruzzetti wisely comments, “before you can make things a lot better, however, you have to stop making things worse” (2006, location 544). We can’t improve a relationship in automatic mode. If your relationship is sliding downward, purposeful intervention is necessary.
Improving relationships is two pronged. As Fruzzetti stated, we first stop making things worse. We recognize when the four-horsemen infiltrate conversations and intervene. Fruzzetti understands the difficulty in this. He warns, “we have to practice lang and hard to unlearn destructive patterns.” The path to change is practice. Partners must practice alternative reactions ahead of time until they become automatic” (location 520-550). This includes identifying typical triggers, and common behaviors leading to those triggers. If we wait until the emotional flooding, we’re likely not to notice the pattern; or, perhaps, we notice it and think, “the hell with it.”
The other prong necessary to saving a relationship is one of addition. We must integrate positive behaviors. Gottman offers encouragement, “just because your marriage follows this pattern, it is not a given that a divorce is in the offing” (2015, p. 39). Happy, stable marriages occasionally slip, and discussions plunge into unproductive realms. A stumble doesn’t kill the closeness. If criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling are permanent residents, there is concern; but the occasional visits from Gottman’s horsemen can be mitigated by a few positive additions.
We first can limit drama with soft start-ups to sensitive topics. Instead of diving headfirst into the morass, we must carefully and compassionately approach the topics with a history, such as the household chores. Gottman’s research found that discussions “invariably end on the same note they begin.” He continues, “If most of your arguments start softly, your marriage is likely to be stable and happy” (p. 162).
Foundations of fondness and admiration must underlie all discussions. Shallow words mean nothing if they don’t represent true feelings. We can pretend to care if we don’t. One can say in disdain, “I love you but…,” however, these tricks of manipulation lose potency, failing to soothe the coming onslaught of criticism. But, when the words of reassurance come from the heart, often the difference is seen as only a small footnote to an otherwise beautiful relationship. In security, the dispute can move forward with both partners experiencing validation, knowing their experience and feelings are heard and matter.
A second important skill to add is hearing and using repairs during disputes. A repair attempt is putting on the brakes when negative emotions begin to flood. Gottman found that when “repair attempts were successful—the results are a stable, happy marriage” (p. 40). A repair attempt signals a need for a break. It could be a comical introjection, “look at us carrying on over this.” Or something very direct, “I can’t discuss this anymore. I’m really upset.” We must hear these bids for an emotional break and respectfully end the discussion until couples can down regulate emotions.
Disagreements that plummet partners into a mutual dysregulation will never be resolved. Both partners need sufficient stability to work through stressful differences. In emotionally aroused conflicts, both “partners end up expressing a lot of hostility, fail to remember or express their love for each other, and are unable to understand each other’s point of view” (Fruzzetti, 2006, location 253). No validation, no repairs, just four-horsemen running rampant. Before creative resolution can be reached, emotions must be soothed.
Stable discussions listen for repair attempts, lavishly give validation, and continually reorient to the longer, more important goal of building the relationship. We can enjoy closeness, friendship and security and disagree. No need for drama. The healthiest couples learn that some of the differences will be solved, many must be accepted, and some just don’t matter.
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