Human relationships are inherently fragile, especially the romantic one. As the old saying goes, it takes a lot to build a relationship with another but very little to break it.
While most relationships end due to problems that have been mismanaged over the years to the point where conflict resolution is only possible in theory, there is also a subtle form of violence that takes place under the layers. This subtle form of violence does not sink the relationship into deep waters at once; it is more of a slow leak. Both the partners know they are damaging their relationship but they keep inflicting the harm until the relationship becomes hollow and collapses around their feet. Each one of us has an irrational and emotionally destructive side to our personality. There are parts in all of us that crave control, seek power over the other, and are selfish and sometimes immature in how they handle relationships. You harm your relationship with your partner when you refuse to acknowledge these parts of yourself or disown them. They seep into your interactions and pollute your relationship in more than one ways.
This slow poison is essentially, the simple act of approaching your relationship with what Dr. Gottman calls, “Negative Sentiment Override.” Even the most calm and intelligent people sometimes resort to spiteful behavior when dealing with those they claim to love. It is surprising how we can bring in bewildering levels of hostility, cruelty, defensiveness and blame games into our most cherished bonds. We sometimes end up gas lighting our partners just to escape our own dark side. While some of us still manage to control the emotionally destructive aspects of ourselves, most of us give-in to the lure, cause damage and cast ourselves as victims-of the very violence we have farmed ourselves.
We take comfort in the knowledge that, we are not one of those abusers, who hit, yell, and hurt their partners for personal gratification. It is pivotal to know that abuse does not restrict itself to just that. You can be just as hurtful and destructive with this ‘Negative Sentiment Override’ as you can be with the other, more overt forms of abuse.
The only thing worse than engaging in these behaviors is not changing them to restore peace in your relationship with your partner. You must be willing to come face to face with these patterns, not to shrug them off but to be aware of them so that they do not consume you. It needs to be understood that, you cannot change what you do not acknowledge. Here are a few characteristics that are typical to this ‘Negative Sentiment Override’ in your relationships.
1. You Engage in Scorekeeping
Healthy relationship is one where the basis of interaction is not trading but cooperation and accommodating each other. Both the partners need to feel that they can genuinely depend on each other practically as well as emotionally. Couples who engage in harmless banter, teasing and joking about the other’s eccentric behavior and who have a sense of fulfilling friendship do it from a place of love and not competition. Intimacy and genuine caring ceases to exist where one or both of the partners are pinning after entitlement or privileges as opposed to reflecting on what one can give to their relationship. The ‘you owe me’ approach will only turn your relationship into a business transaction with no real meaning behind any interaction other than getting leverage over your partner. Very often, the result of engaging in this behavior is the paranoia that couples start to feel over every exchange of affection, that it will eventually come with a price too high.
2. Excessive Fault Finding
There is no harm in giving genuine input, constructive feedback or point out the actions or behaviors of your partner when they bother you as long as that input is meant to improve the relationship. Sometimes, even constructive feedback gives way to excessive and unnecessary fault finding and one or both partners start obsessing over the faults of the other. This is an attitude that will overtake you before you know it. This makes your partner, confused, discouraged and resistant to your affection because when the ‘should’ starts becoming common in your interaction with your partner, you’re telling them that not only do you not appreciate their efforts but they also don’t match up to the ‘standard’ that is in place for them.
3. Lack of Flexibility
The ‘My way or the highway’ attitude is anti-attunement with your partner. Putting yourself in a position higher than that of your partner or insinuating that you have the last say in your relationship turns what is supposed to be a mutual bond into something that operates on a counterproductive hierarchy. The health of your relationship with your partner should be your top most priority instead of feeding your own sense of superiority over your significant other.
4. You Resort to Attacking
A couple that knows how to have the difficult, uncomfortable but necessary conversations and arguments, is the couple that has the resources to keep up with the waves of romantic bonds. When the interactions between two people become more attack than honest discourse, the relationship is scarred in a way that is very difficult to undo. You are not only deliberately belittling or hurting your partner but you are also allowing resentment to reside permanently between the two of you.
5. Passive Aggression is Still Aggression
While passive aggression seems like the lesser of the two evils, it is very important to know that it can cause more long lasting harm because it becomes a pattern of expression contaminating the foundation of a healthy relationship. You engage in passive aggression by keeping your real feelings to yourself and verbalizing them later in a condescending tone. The need to appear agreeable but wanting to disagree cannot only confuse your partner; it can cause you a lot of dissonance as well. Sure, it will give your anger an outlet while being in the safe place but it is little else. Addressing the conflict in a civil and rational way is far better than approaching it in a way that does no good to your relationship, in fact only harms it.
6. Forgiveness Doesn’t Come Easily to You
The expectation that two people will never hurt or disappoint one or the other is the poison that romantic literature and theatre has fed us over the years. Where there is love and affection, there is a higher risk of inevitable disappointment and hurt. All relationships have difficulties and people in a relationship are just as human. We make mistakes and we should learn to foster forgiveness in us when it is warranted. Forgiveness too, if not abused can turn into a love language.
7. The Comfort Trap
As the relationship ages, becomes more secure and safe place for two people to exist, we often stop nourishing it. We think that the nurturance or the nourishment is only needed when it’s in the early stages of development and once we move past that stage, no more effort is required. We get used to the comfort so much so that we stop working towards growing with our partner or rekindling the spark in our relationship. The sense of security and love often turns into neglect and indifference when this goes on for long. Like all things, love too needs to be nurtured and rekindled.
8. Giving Up on Your Bond
The worst kind of damage that two people can do to a bond is to give up on it. Conflicts are only as big as we let them be. Giving up means that you take the back seat without even making the effort to fix things. Anything that lacks effort, losses credibility. Sometimes the only thing needed to fix a struggling relationship is the will to make an effort. When your partner feels that you are willing to work it out, they feel the lost sense of belonging again and that motivates them to do their bit as well.
Our relationships can be as fulfilling as we want them to be and as toxic as we are capable of making them. In the end of the day, it is about how far you are willing to go to save what you cherish.
Author: Iqra Naz
Clinical and Counselling Psychologist
Family First Institute