When relationships are hard, try this

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 4 of The Year of Happy‘s month on relationships. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

You don’t have to go far before you trip over an example of relationship drama, whether it’s in the tabloids or the latest romantic comedy movie or that tearful phone call from a friend. Our brains obsess over relationships, and they arguably obsess even more when relationships turn sour. Hearing some of the thorny conflicts, you might wonder how two separate human beings ever come together in love and harmony.

Science can tell us about the dark side of relationships, too, including what tends to go wrong and how to go about setting it right. Below are some of the most common relationship difficulties and guidance for how to move forward.

Problem: My romantic relationship is on the rocks

According to researcher John Gottman, there are four signs that a relationship is headed for divorce – the so-called “four horsemen of the apocalypse”:

  • Criticism. In contrast to a (healthy) complaint, criticism attacks the person instead of the specific behavior. “You should have…,” “You never…,” and “You always…” are criticisms; “I felt sad when you…” is not. Anytime we allocate blame or make global accusations, we are criticizing.
  • Contempt. Further down the path to destruction, contempt occurs when we intentionally try to psychologically abuse our partner. We might insult them, call them names, use hostile sarcasm, or mock them: “Why are you so selfish?”
  • Defensiveness. A common response to contempt is defensiveness, trying to prove our innocence or victimhood. We are being defensive if we deny responsibility, make excuses, criticize after being criticized, or whine: “Well, I wouldn’t have missed the party if you had given me more notice.” Defensiveness stalls communication, yet it’s so common – communication consultant Sharon Ellison believes that all of us get defensive and it can take as little as a nano-second. In this video, she explains six types of defensiveness to be on the lookout for as you communicate with your spouse:
  • Stonewalling. Stonewalling, more common among men, is when we withdraw from the conversation by not reacting, not making eye contact, changing the subject, or leaving the room. While the stonewaller might think they are being neutral, that’s not how it feels to the person being stonewalled.

It’s not conflict or anger but the presence of these four horsemen that are the problem, Gottman says. So much of his work focuses on how to help couples unlearn these behaviors and disagree in more productive ways. A productive conflict lasts about 15 minutes and allows both partners to deal with the emotions they are feeling. Each conflict should begin by setting the agenda and listening to each other, continue into persuasion and argument, and resolve with a mutually acceptable solution.

Gottman understands that men and women come into romantic relationships with different skills and physiologies, so they each have to be wary about certain tendencies. Men are more likely to feel “flooded” by strong negative emotions, so he encourages them to listen to the meaning behind their partner’s words rather than getting overwhelmed by the way they are delivered (or shouted – see nondefensive listening below). He also advises women to be a bit gentler with their complaints, knowing that men take them especially hard.

Gottman concludes his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail and How You Can Make Yours Last with four tips that he believes will get a couple 75% of the way toward a successful, happy partnership:

  • Calm down. If we are too distressed, a thoughtful and productive discussion with our partner becomes practically impossible. As odd as it sounds, Gottman recommends that couples take their pulse during an argument and take a break if it reaches 110% of their baseline heart rate (measured by taking it at other times during the day). It can take about 20 minutes before your pulse returns to normal and you can return to the conversation.
  • Speak nondefensively. Nondefensive listening means listening without our hackles up: we truly keep our mind open to the thoughts and feelings our partner is trying to communicate, even if they aren’t being as polite or calm as we would like. We show that we’re listening with our body and our words, nodding and saying, “Yeah” or “Go ahead” or “That makes sense.” We don’t deny responsibility, make excuses, or whine. Nondefensive speaking means speaking without attacking. We try not to allocate blame, make sweeping judgments, use insults or sarcasm, or psychoanalyze the other person. Instead, our goal is to communicate how we’re feeling about this particular situation. A useful strategy for nondefensive speaking is to employ repair mechanisms, little tactics that help salvage the discussion, such as affection, humor, asking your partner how they’re feeling, or keeping the conversation on track: “Please let me finish” or “We’re getting off topic.” To summarize nondefensive speaking: a discussion is not a battle.
  • Validate. Validating is a way to make our partner feel understood. We feel validated when our partner takes responsibility, apologizes, or compliments us. At the very minimum, it means showing that we are listening. (Gottman counsels men to work on their validating skills, rather than jumping right into problem-solving mode.)
  • Overlearn these skills. These skills are hardest to implement at the times we need them most – in the midst of an upsetting, emotional argument. Practice them over and over until they become second nature.

In this pair of videos, Gottman explains the four horsemen and (on the flipside) the seven components of a sound relationship:

If these tactics don’t help and you’re considering a break, check out this article:

Read “Should You Stay or Should You Go?”

Problem: I feel disconnected

For years, researcher-storyteller Brené Brown studied shame, one of the main things that get in the way of connecting with others. When we feel shame – the sense that we’re not good enough, not smart enough, not beautiful enough, etc. – we don’t have the courage to connect authentically with others. We don’t have compassion for our flaws, and we constantly worry that people will reject us in one way or another. So we try to push away these negative emotions, and in the process lose our capacity for joy and connection.

But Brown identified a capacity that makes some people able to stay connected and feel love and belonging. She called it vulnerability, and she called these people wholehearted. Watch her funny and touching TED talk here:

Problem: I need to end a friendship

The fact that friendships are so flexible means that we’re often reluctant to officially end a friendship. Unlike romantic partners (at least in monogamous societies), we can have more than one friend, so our standards don’t have to be so high. And many friendships simply fade, as people get busy and the phone calls and emails dry up. Knowing when to actually end a friendship, and how to go about doing this unenviable task, is no simple matter.

Do any of your friends fit into these unhealthy categories?

  • The ambivalent friend: This friendship brings us both positive and negative emotions, joy and anger, laughter and hurt. But the more ambivalent friendships we have, the greater our risk for depression and cardiovascular problems. Simply being around “ambivalent friends” increases our blood pressure, even more than when we’re around people we don’t like (perhaps because their behavior is unpredictable).
  • The rival: We’re always competing with our rival to see who has the better job, the better partner, the better house. They probably fit into the ambivalent category.
  • The bad influence: Instead of bringing out the best in us, this friend brings out the worst. We find ourselves drifting away from our goals, values, or good habits when we’re around them. (Having a friend who smokes, for example, increases our chances of smoking by 36%.)
  • The flabby friend: We could do without this person in our life, but they’ve stayed in our circle of friends due to inertia. (According to one survey, over 75% of people have at least five “flabby friends”).

Other signs of a bad friendship include feeling obliged to spend time with them, getting irritated with them, having bad judgment around them, or not trusting them. If we find ourselves in this situation, we can try to deliberately drift apart, but we may have to have a difficult “end the friendship” conversation.

Here are some tips for knowing when a friendship should end and how to go about doing it. Interestingly, Wellcast recommends that we enlist the support of our other friends and connections during this difficult process:

Problem: I’m not good at social stuff

For some of us, it feels like charm and wit and conversation are special skills endowed on everyone else, making us feel unable to make new friends and worried about being a bore to old ones.

Although disorders like social anxiety exist, many of us are simply mediocre at making connections – or at least, it feels like it. But as Daniel Goleman describes in Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, we are wired to be social. We have brains built to sense others’ emotions, give them our full attention, and understand the nuances of the social world. These skills make up social awareness, one-half of social intelligence; the other half is “social facility,” or knowing how to put our knowledge to good use.

Part of social facility is knowing when to be more emotionally expressive and when to be less. The people who are most skilled at this have “charisma,” the ability to make others feel their emotions. We can also tweak the things we say and the actions we take to shape social outcomes – for example, getting a group of friends to decide on Italian for dinner, or reassuring a friend who felt rejected by us. If you feel lacking in the social skills department, read the articles below to get a few new ideas: 

Read “How to Connect with a Date or Mate”

Read “Seven Common Mistakes That Can Ruin New Friendships”

Read “A Menu of Options for Making Small Talk”

The title of this section is “When Relationships Are Hard…,” but relationships are hard almost all the time. It takes effort to connect with another person, who has different attitudes and assumptions and values and quirks and preferences than we do. But the effort is worth it – the joy of connection may be the highest happiness there is.

Sources and further reading:

Go back to Week 3: The benefits of relationships

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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