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Step 3: Stuck in the cycles of conflict

Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, proposes that conflict is a result of disconnection and an attempt to reconnect partners.

For some of us, conflict reconnects. For others, it disconnects us even more. The difference is not what you say, but how you say it.

There are specific ways we say things that can make conflict worse. Dr. Gottman’s research has uncovered four behaviours that will end a marriage in less than 6 years:

  1. Criticism
  2. Defensiveness
  3. Contempt
  4. Stonewalling

When we are critical of the person we love, it guarantees that they’ll be defensive. If they fight back with a counter-attack, you’ll find your relationship caught in a toxic cycle of the “blame game,” arguing with each other over who is more wrong or flawed.

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Eventually, one partner becomes disrespectful and starts to talk down to their partner with contempt. Dr. Gottman’s research discovered that contempt is the #1 predictor of divorce. It’s a form of talking down to your partner from a place of superiority.

The partner who is the receiver of contempt feels humiliated and shamed.

It’s no surprise that someone stonewalls when their partner is contemptuous. This creates the “pursue-withdraw” pattern, one of the more difficult relationship patterns to escape.

The partner who is reactive with rage is then met with a lover who is physically present but emotionally absent. Hopelessness and despair consume the relationship. When this happens, partners lose their capacity to stay calm around each other.3

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