The majority of intimate relationships fail, devolving into bitterness and conflict. Statistics show that only three in ten marriages remain stable, healthy, and happy. Why are some relationships more doomed than others? Terminal relationship gridlock.
Gridlock occurs when we have complete disregard for what our partners might think or feel about important relationship issues. We get stuck in our own point of view, and are unable or unwilling to consider our mate’s vantage point. We make up our minds that we’re right, and that our partners are wrong, communicate our feelings as facts, and turn a deaf ear to our mate’s thoughts and feelings. Determined to force our own point of view, we communicate in presumptive, heavy-handed, and parental ways. If you’re like most people, chances are you’ve interacted with your partner through one or more harmful types of “crossovers” or “verbal trespassing” without realizing it:
1. Mind Reading.
We do it hundreds of times a day: We make up stories about a situation without evidence. We jump to conclusions about what our mate is thinking or doing without checking it out. You might say something to your partner like, “You probably think I’m irresponsible because I lost my cell phone.” You can sidestep this trespass by simply checking it out: “Do you think I’m irresponsible?”
2. Emotion Reading.
We conclude what our partner is feeling without asking. You might say, “I can tell you’re angry with me because I’m late.” To avoid this trespass, ask what she or he is feeling: “Are you angry with me because I’m late?”
We label our partner or spouse with negative attributes: “You’re mean and selfish.” To dodge this trespass, step back and speak of yourself, using “I-messages” instead of “You-messages”: “I’m uncomfortable with how we’re talking; I’d like to take a time out and come back when we’re calmer.” When we refer to our own feelings (I-messages) instead of pointing our fingers (You-messages), it reduces defensiveness and tension and promotes open dialogue.
We criticize our partner’s behaviors or habits: “You always pile dirty dishes in the sink instead of putting them in the dishwasher.” To reverse this trespass, try using, “When you . . . I feel . . .” to communicate how a certain action makes you feel: “When you continue to pile dirty dishes in the sink, it makes me feel like my requests don’t matter to you.”
We tell our partner what to do and expect them to do what we say: “Don’t eat that; it’s bad for you.” To avoid this trespass, state your concern, or ask a question: “I’m thinking about your health. Do you want the meal fried, or would you rather have something grilled?”
Over time, these crossovers cause intimate connections to devolve into a state of relationship failure. Studies by family therapist John Gottman reveal four red flags that breakups are imminent: Constant criticism (attacking our partners) can lead to defensiveness(a counterattack) or stonewalling (withdrawing from the conversation altogether), and eventually to contempt (looking down our noses at our mates or resenting them for not seeing our point of view).
What Can You Do?
It’s possible to reduce interpersonal conflict and improve communication by avoiding verbal trespassing, maintaining respectful boundaries, and being mindful of how you give and receive information. It’s simple science: Studies show that consideration, kindness, and generosity are the best medicine for strong and healthy intimate relationships. Empathy neutralizes discord. Putting yourself in your partner’s shoes by temporarily suspending your own perspective sharpens your listening skills and deepens your understanding of their thoughts and feelings without the need to agree or disagree. This type of active listening engages you in what your partner is saying and feeling without falling into the trap of who’s right and who’s wrong. It softens tension and sets the stage for mutual cooperation, collaboration, and loving connection.