Intimate relationships pose a challenge to even the most well-intentioned and loving couples. To assume that your marriage or relationship will run smoothly from beginning to end is naïve at best (though we may all wish that this was indeed the case). Of course, I’m not suggesting that your relationship should involve emotional pain or that couplehood and martydom are inevitable.
But we must recognize the reality that even the best of relationships go through ups and downs.
If the truth is that a couple can expect their marriage/relationship to go through difficult periods, what can couples do to prevent these inevitable rough spots from becoming entrenched patterns of negativity that can ultimately end the union?
Let’s examine some ways to protect your relationship from falling victim to the shadow of negativity.
3 Ways to Deal with Negativity and Strengthen Your Relationship
1) Identifying Your Core Vulnerabilities
We all enter our marriage/relationship with emotional vulnerabilities, tender spots that are carry-overs from our childhood. Some experts theorize that we unconsciously choose a spouse/partner who is uniquely capable of helping us heal from these wounds. But without a conscious understanding of these dynamics, this potential healer-partner is also likely to trigger your core emotional wounds in ways that lead to repeated wounding.
- How can you become more mindful of your own emotional vulnerabilities and take responsibility for them in your marriage/relationship?
2) Acknowledging that You Are Susceptible to Negativity
Negative emotions have a powerful magnetic pull that can suck in even the most well-intended person. And once hurt feelings are involved, we are likely to stomp our feet and point out all the injustices that we believe our partner is guilty of. The result? An interactional game of ping-pong that centers around criticism, indignation and defensiveness, and ultimately disengagement (the research of John Gottman has shown how these negative patterns are predicative of divorce).
- How can you start taking greater ownership and responsibility for your own negative-defensive reactions?
3) Identifying Ways to Unhook (While Staying Engaged)
As mentioned above, unchecked negativity (anger, defensiveness, criticalness) can pull a couple under its currents, and before long, a rigid and unrelenting pattern results that keeps both partners stuck in hostile waters. The challenge for all couples is once you’ve identified your own susceptibility to the negative (even the kindest of us get pretty defensive at times), it’s important to unhook from these powerful currents and make intentional efforts to shape the interactions toward the more understanding, compassionate and appreciative energies that feed love.
- What is one thing you can do this week to help make positive, loving interactions part of your marriage/relationship?
As you read the above three ways to keep your marriage/relationship strong and running on all cylinders, remember that the goal is never to avoid a problem or pretend things are “just fine” by over- emphasizing the positive while in reality everything seems to be falling apart around you. Rather, the goal is to fully embrace your own internal dynamics by understanding your core vulnerabilities and the ways in which they get triggered in your relationship.
Finally, I’ve seen in my work with couples how denying one’s own potential for negativity and defensiveness contributes to a heavy-handed pointing of the finger at the other for all the relationship problems that exist. This approach has never resulted in meaningful change and, in fact, usually feeds the fires of negativity.