Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships — with romantic partners, family members, co-workers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!
Q: I find that I typically date people with similar personalities, and it never works out with them. I don’t think there’s anything particularly toxic about the character traits that attract me to them, but a part of me feels like maybe I need to try dating a different type and see if it would work better. Am I wasting my time dating people who all align with my type? Is it bad to have a type at all?
A: It depends on what you mean by “type.” If you are talking about a “type” of personality that is athletic, energetic, adventurous, intelligent, or outgoing, then there is nothing wrong with having a “type.” However, if the type that you gravitate toward is more of a sarcastic, aloof, or mysterious type whose behavior tends to stress you out, then you might be headed for problems.
What’s more important than type is how the person interacts with you and with others. Does this person treat you and others with dignity and respect? Are they interested in what you have to say? Can this person listen to your struggles in the relationship? How do they bring up issues that are troubling to them? Does this person attack or blame you or others? Do they accept responsibility for their part in things not going well? Does this person make you feel important by following through with promises and commitments?
What we have learned from the research on relationships is that there are four behaviors that will kill relationships: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. Criticism is when someone attacks or blames others for things not going well, or if their feelings got hurt. Defensiveness means that the person denies any part of responsibility for a problem in the relationship by saying something like, “No, I don’t,” or “It’s not my fault,” or “You do it too!” They see themselves as the innocent victim. Contempt is when someone believes that they are superior to their partner or their partner is really defective. It can appear through name-calling, sarcasm, and making fun of the partner. Stonewalling is the term used to describe when one partner shuts down on the other partner or refuses to talk or engage. They may even walk away from the conversation. These behaviors are a death knell to the relationship unless both partners are willing to realize that they contribute to these problems and learn to use the antidotes.
The antidotes are simple in theory, but often difficult to practice because they don’t come naturally to some people. The antidote to criticism is what is called a gentle startup. The gentle startup has three parts: 1) the person talks about their emotions (i.e., angry, hurt, embarrassed, dismissed, minimized); 2) the person talks about the situation or event that occurred (not who did it); and 3) the person asks for what they want or need to be different next time in positive terms (what they do want, rather than what they don’t want). Tone of voice does matter. It is important to be calm and respectful.
The antidote to defensiveness is taking responsibility for your own part in the problem. The antidote to contempt is to respectfully state what you need. An example would be saying something like “I need complete honesty and transparency here,” instead of saying “You’re such a liar!” A gentle startup would work here as well.
The antidote to stonewalling is calming down. When people stonewall, they are usually so upset and overwhelmed with emotions that they cannot talk. However, the message to the partner is one of disgust — they often hear, “you’re not even worth wasting my words on.” If you find yourself in this state, explain to your partner that you are overwhelmed, and just can’t talk right now. Take 20-30 minutes to calm down — doing something that soothes you, such as listening to music, going for a walk, or reading a book or magazine. When you are soothing yourself, try not to think of what you are upset about, because this keeps you in that overwhelmed state. Instead, do something to get your mind off of what you are upset about. When you are calm, then you can go back and discuss the issue.
In addition to the ability to be introspective about your own contribution to the relationship, notice if your potential partner is trustworthy and committed. Trust means that this person will be there for you in your time of need, will have your back, and keep your best interests in mind when they make decisions. Commitment means that they choose you and see you as the person they want to go through life with.
The important components in good relationships are interest and curiosity about your partner, the ability to be introspective and hold yourself accountable for your contribution to problems, trustworthiness, and the ability to commit. I hope that you will incorporate these character traits into your “type” going forward.
More from Asking for a Friend here.