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Make your existing relationship work

To Love and To Honor with guest, Dr. Terry Hargrave Ph.D.

Marriages do not just fall into the ditch of dissatisfaction; rather they begin a relatively slow decline that picks up speed as things get worse. There are four warning signs of a deteriorating relationship:

1. Criticism

2. Contempt

3. Defensiveness

4. Stonewalling

Criticism involves attacking another’s personality or character. This is different from complaining, which is more of an expression of dissatisfaction and an indirect attack. Criticism on the other hand is a direct attack or blow to the self-esteem and goes something like this: “You’re the most irresponsible person I’ve ever met”. Neither behavior is very constructive or conducive to long-term relationships.

Contempt is the intention to insult or psychologically abuse one’s partner. When spouses feel contempt for each other, they hurl insults and call each other names. Contempt also includes the use of sarcastic humor and mockery, and generally making hurtful fun of a partner. (Gottman 1994) identified contemptuous body language, primarily involving facial expressions. Sighing heavily, sneering, rolling one’s eyes, and pulling at our curling the upper lip all communicate contempt or disgust.

Defensiveness is the natural response to criticism and contempt. The problem with defensiveness is each person begins to see themselves as right and their partner as the problem. Defensive behaviors include denying responsibility, making excuses, cross-complaining, automatically disagreeing, and accusing the accuser of the same behavior. There are two ways to be defensive, one is to react passively and ignore the criticism and contempt as the mere rantings and ravings of a lunatic, not worthy of an active response. The other way is to become the aggressor and attack the criticizing partner with angry words and accusations. Defensiveness is a sure sign of deterioration in a relationship.

Stonewalling usually occurs when relationships characterized by criticism; contempt and defensiveness have escalated to a hopeless stage. It is giving up on trying to communicate or work things out. One partner usually checks out emotionally and more or less is just buying time until the relationship is officially over.

Medical doctors make a commitment to the idea of “First, do no harm.” That means that they are committed to doing nothing to the patient that will make things worse. In order to take a relationship from the brink of destruction back to harmony you must first agree as a couple to do no harm to each other or the relationship. Don’t make things worse than they already are. And it takes a commitment from both parties in order to begin the mending process.

Humility is essential to the repair process. Humility is not a popular word in our culture because we associate it with shame, lack of assertiveness, and co-dependency. We have come to equate humility with the loss of individual pride and self-esteem. Humility in reality is just the process of dealing with your own issues and correct your own attitudes instead of trying to change or fix your partner.

If you are concentrating on your partner’s problems, you are unavailable to concentrate on your own. We tend to focus on what we see, and when we highlight the shortcomings in a relationship we become demeaning and judgmental and we miss the beauty and value that attracted us to our partner in the first place.

  • First do no harm
  • Be willing to communicate
  • Respect yourself
  • Respect your partner
  • Practice humility
  • Practice love
  • Practice trust
Dr Terry D. Hargrave Ph.D. is a professor at Amarillo College in Texas. He’s also the author and co-author of three books as well as having contributed chapters and articles to numerous books and publications. As a noted speaker and presenter, he is well known for his work with intergenerational families and has been featured in numerous national magazines and newspapers, as well as on television shows such as 20/20 and CBS This Morning.

© 2002

Information from: Words of Wellness

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