I am writing this article on Valentine’s Day, a day devoted to love, connection, attachment and relationships. As I read the sentiments on Hallmark cards and listen to the words of popular songs about love, I am mystified as to why so many relationships don’t go the distance.
Researchers will explain that it is easy to fall in love, but hard to stay there. What’s the secret?
After reading many books on relationships, training thousands of teachers on relationship development skill building for adolescents, reading study after study about attachment, I have some ideas.
Once we open our hearts to attach to another, we become vulnerable and our open heart reacts to any negativity or criticism of our partner. According to researcher Dr. John Gottman, criticism is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in which he can predict divorce with more than 90 percent accuracy.
Criticism is so destructive to relationships. Many times, criticism attacks our character, rather than our behavior. It is filled with blame, is disrespectful and undermines our value and worth. It fosters hurt, disappointment and, if unchecked, spirals into resentment. The person being criticized feels like they are being controlled and nothing is ever good enough. It is the ultimate rejection of who we are and how we present ourselves. This rejection fosters a downward spiral of frustration and self-preservation closing the heart to another rather than keeping it open, attached and vulnerable. This puts the one criticized in a defensive and hardened posture. Sexual expression with one another is diminished, time together is reduced because those who are being belittled do not want to be in the company of the one that is causing them great pain.
Marriage researchers such as Drs. Stanley and Markman outline that it takes many compliments to undo the deleterious emotional effects of one critical statement.
How then do we voice our frustration with our partner if there is something that needs to be improved? In order to do this well we must first recognize the difference between criticism and helpful feedback.
This example is a common criticism, “You are irresponsible with money and we are going into debt. Two bills are now overdue.” A way to offer helpful feedback is, “Why don’t we spend some time going over the bills and creating a budget that we can both agree on.”
What also must happen to keep the relationship alive and healthy is to monitor your tone of voice. If you are angry and frustrated at your partner, no amount of helpful feedback will come through. It will continue to feel like criticism.
Feedback must be on how to improve, encourage, change, help and respect the autonomy, value and worth of another.
Words are powerful. They can be used to destroy or encourage. Once said they cannot be unsaid. You cannot un-ring a bell. To go the distance with your Valentine, honor each other with loving, kind words and keep the heart open to love. For more information: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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