When things
get tough This Emotional Life - PBS

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Relationships

		

When things <br />get tough

When things get tough

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The little
things

The little things

Do you say a warm good morning to your mate when you first wake up, or roll your eyes and complain about how many times she hit the snooze button? When you suggest a movie, does your partner discuss it with you or does he put down your suggestion? Over time, these relatively brief exchanges add up to form the basis of a relationship.

Paying attention to the small moments and investing them with attention and importance can make a big difference toward a couple’s overall satisfaction in their relationship.


After the honeymoon
When people date, they tend to spend a lot of time and energy on getting to know one another, talking and listening, making each other feel good with favors and compliments, holding hands, having sex, and finding fun and creative activities to try together. Naturally, all this attention creates closeness and a foundation for a bigger commitment. Once that commitment is made, however, priorities may change with responsibilities at work, starting a family, or simply falling into a predictable routine.

Making or scheduling time to connect both emotionally and physically—much in the same way you did when you were first dating—is an important way to maintain and grow your relationship.

Take care of yourself

Stress can tax the healthiest relationships. Whether it’s a new baby, financial pressures, job changes, or the day-to-day grind, one of the best things you can do for your relationship is take time to manage your own stress in healthy ways. When you do this, it’s easier to be supportive of your partner. Tapping into social support is one of the most important ways to manage stress.

Researchers have found that being able to talk about your problems—even ordinary stresses and strains—with friends as well as with your partner can help protect your relationship.

When things
get tough

When things get tough

Things were going fine until he lost his job. She thought their new baby would change everything. If you have a struggling relationship, you aren’t alone. Forty-five percent of all marriages end in divorce. Not only that, but the average struggling couple waits as long as six years to get help. Although it’s not easy to work through relationship differences, splitting up has its own set of woes. For some, deciding to seek help turns out to be the first step in finding greater happiness. In addition, being willing to change and seeking help early, before patterns become habits, can mean greater success.

Conflict resolution

We can’t agree on what color to paint the bedroom; one parent thinks it’s okay for their daughter to play video games, while the other doesn’t. Differences of opinion and conflict are part of any relationship. The important thing is how we handle conflict and resolve disagreements.

Solvable versus unsolvable
Any conflict can be divided into two categories, solvable and unsolvable. Satisfied couples accept that certain disagreements are simply a part of their relationship, while unhappy couples tend to dwell on the unsolvable problems.

Hot-button issues
It may help to know that you are not alone. The most common issues that couples go head-to-head on are:

  • Moods and tempers
  • Money
  • Health (mental or physical)
  • Sex
  • Growing apart
  • Lack of commitment
  • How to raise children
  • Employment

 

Improving your
relationship

Improving your relationship

The Gottman Institute helps couples and provides training to mental health professionals and other healthcare providers.

The Institute offers the following tips for couples looking to improve their relationship:

  • Have high standards: The most successful couples are those who, even as newlyweds, refused to accept hurtful behavior from one another. The lower the level of tolerance for bad behavior at the beginning of a relationship, the happier the couple is down the road.
  • Edit yourself: Couples who avoid saying every critical thought they have when discussing touchy topics are consistently the happiest.
  • Soften your “start-up”: Instead of being critical or contemptuous, bring up problems gently and without blame. Talking about your own feelings rather than attacking your mate can quickly change what could have been a fight into a conversation. For example, instead of saying, “I can’t believe you didn’t take out the garbage last night,” you can say, “It upset me that you didn’t take out the garbage last night like we talked about.”
  • Accept influence: By trying to understand your partner’s point of view and letting her know you hear and understand, even if you don’t agree or can’t fulfill her request, you create room for a true partnership.
  • Work toward compromise: Consider what is shared in the argument. Assuming a problem is solvable by finding where you and your partner agree moves you closer to a solution or compromise.
  • Take a break: If you are physically responding to a disagreement with a racing heart, sweaty palms or shallow breathing, you won’t be able to think clearly. The best approach is to take a 20-minute break and return to the topic when you feel calmer. Don’t spend the time stewing or planning a counterattack.
  • Learn to repair and exit the argument: Using humor, a caring remark, backing down, or making it clear you are on common ground are ways to exit or repair an argument before it gets totally out of control.
  • Focus on the positive: Emphasizing the good over the bad is like making deposits into a bank account. The goodwill is there when you need it. In a happy marriage, while discussing problems, couples make at least five times as many positive statements to and about each other and their relationship as negative ones, such as “We laugh a lot,” rather than, “We never have any fun.”

Conflict styles
Naturally, not everyone solves problems in the same way. According to research by Dr. John Gottman, founder of the Gottman Institute and an expert in marital stability and divorce, problem-solving styles used by couples include those who talk about their problems, those who bring very high levels of energy and emotion in solving problems, and those who ignore their problems and agree to disagree. While no style is better than any other, awareness about different approaches to conflict can help in overall communication skills. It’s also possible that one partner may have one style and the other may have a different style. Such pairs can still effectively communicate during conflict, but it may take some extra work and awareness.

Helpful patterns
Resolving differences is generally not pleasant, but research shows that satisfied couples tend to bring positive emotions to their conflicts five times more often than negative emotions. Examples include listening and acknowledging your partner’s point of view even if you don’t agree and being affectionate and showing you care. In addition, using humor that isn’t at the expense of either partner also helps when working through problems.

Behaviors
to avoid

Behaviors to avoid

While arguments and disagreements generally come with predictable emotions of anger or sadness, when certain approaches for addressing a problem crop up consistently it usually spells trouble.

Negative approaches to problem solving:

Being critical

  • Rather than discussing a specific behavior, attacking your mate as a person
  • Often saying, “You always” or “You never”
  • Bringing up a long list of complaints and grievances that seem to include everything but the kitchen sink

Being contemptuous

  • Regularly showing disgust and disrespect to your partner
  • Smirking or rolling your eyes
  • Making jokes that are cruel and hurtful

Emotionally shutting down

  • Being unresponsive to your partner’s attempts to communicate, especially about areas of conflict
  • Being defensive
  • Listening superficially
  • Responding emotionally
  • Launching counterattacks

Being combative

  • Using a teasing and taunting tone
  • Trying to get a rise out of your partner
  • Being ready with a counterattack


Harmful patterns
Everything happens in a context. When one partner tells the other something that makes her angry or sad about their relationship, it’s appropriate that her partner would respond with those emotions too. But when couples deal in more toxic emotions like contempt or defensiveness, they do more damage to the relationship over the long term.  

Recognizing
abuse

Recognizing abuse and getting help

Abuse can take many forms, but it generally involves cruelty, control, or violence to a partner, such as:

  • Insults and name calling
  • Dictating who a partner spends time with
  • Isolating a partner from friends, family, and a support network
  • Using fear, blame, or threats to control a partner’s actions
  • Hitting, pushing, or other types of physical aggression

Find Help

Locate mental health and well-being support organizations in your area.