Four Behaviors that Damage Couples' Relationships

Sandra A. Shachar, PhD

Licensed Psychologist

In order to understand how partners' interactions can damage their relationship, I find it useful to think of a couple as having an "an emotional savings account," similar to a bank account. With a financial savings account, you make deposits that accumulate and allow you to withdraw some of the balance for an emergency or vacation. Similarly, couples make "deposits" into their relationship's emotional savings account. Deposits are be made by doing things that create safety and connection in the relationship. "Joint deposits" are things like having fun together, being sexual with each other, celebrating special occasions and holidays together, and so on. Individual deposits into account can be small things like showing your partner physical affection, saying words of appreciation or affirmation, buying your partner's favorite food when grocery shopping, giving them a gift, or planning a special date they will enjoy. According to relationship experts Drs. John and Julie Gottman, "small things count" when building a couples' emotional savings account.

By the same token, "withdrawals" deplete the account and can eventually force a couple into emotional bankruptcy, destroying the relationship. Withdrawals include what the Gottmans refer to as

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:

1. Criticism

Critical comments of your partner and their behavior, create an inner "ouch," for the recipient, such as, "Is that really what you're wearing to dinner with my boss?!"

2. Defensiveness

Defensive statements excuse your own behavior, lack taking accountability or culpability, and may even deflect the blame for your behavior onto the other person. For example, the person who comes home later than promised says to their upset partner," Well, I have to work late to support us! Your spending habits require me to work overtime!"

3. Stonewalling

This withdrawal is made by ignoring the other person or giving them "the cold shoulder," i.e., not speaking to them, not responding to calls or texts, giving only one word answers, or saying "Nothing" when asked "What is wrong?" It also includes talking to your partner "through" others, such as, "Tell your father he can do his own laundry!"

4. Contempt

Contempt is shown for one's partner by verbal and non-verbal behaviors such as "tsking" or sighing audibly when the partner speaks, eye-rolling, and belittling the partner in front of children or other adults. Belittling occurs both in private conversation, such as "Are you really so naive as to think he was giving you a compliment??!" As well as publicly, such as "Oh, don't bother trying to explain this to her, Joe. Audrey never has understood how business deals are done!" Belittling can also take the form of "jokes" at the partner's expense, frequently followed by saying something like, "Oh, c'mon, don't be so sensitive; I was just kidding! Can't you take a joke?"

On this "minus" side of the bank ledger, even small negativity, such as a single critical remark or rolling of the eyes, triggers a withdrawal that is proportionately greater than a positive small deposit. Large negative events, like arguments that include baiting or button-pushing statements, case-building statements (the subtext of which is: "Here is why I'm right and you are wrong") or silence that last for days, extract huge amounts of the couple's savings account.

Each negative or hurtful interaction is damaging to the relationship and requires a proportionately greater amount of positive interactions to offset the negative and replenish the savings account. Unfortunately, the more negative interactions we have with our partner, the less motivated we are to engage in positive interactions with them. When withdrawals occur frequently, or over a long period of time, the account goes into a deficit mode, and eventually causes the couple to confront the absence of any warmth or goodwill toward the other. This is emotional bankruptcy.

When you feel that your relationship's emotional savings account is not what it should be, the sooner you seek help, the better. If either of you says, "we have a problem," then you do. When couples have been running in "deficit mode" for years or even decades, it becomes difficult - though not impossible- to recover the feelings of love you had earlier. Recovering a sense of safety, connection and desire can begin with even one person seeking counseling on behalf of the relationship, looking at your own contribution to your relationship's bank account, and then inviting your partner into a safe space to see how you can put your relationship "back in the black" with a healthy relationship account balance!

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