Relationships can bring such joy and connection and shared experiences. Relationships can also bring pain and heartbreak and disconnection. Being in a relationship can uplift and support. Or, when it doesn’t work out, it can crush and diminish you.
Where are you with your relationship? If you’re reading this blog post then you may be wondering whether it’s worth continuing to strive to make things work – or whether to cut your losses and go your separate ways.
Coronavirus and the lockdown situation have put unprecedented pressure on relationships. Whether you’re living together or apart, the restrictions created by Covid-19 have put many partnerships to the test. Not being able to see each other is one thing. Being in each other’s pockets 24/7 is another. Whatever your circumstances, your relationship may not survive if it has turned toxic.
A classic definition of a toxic relationship comes from Dr John Gottman, a researcher and expert on human relationships, founder of The Gottman Institute, who is renowned for his work in this field. He has defined four behaviours – he calls them ‘the four horsemen of the apocalypse’. The metaphor of the horsemen comes from the New Testament, where it describes conquest, war, hunger and death. Fast forward to today, and these four horsemen relate to communication styles that can act as warning signs a relationship may be hurtling to an end.
Four signs your relationship may be toxic
There is a difference between offering supportive, constructive critique and out-and-out criticism of the other person. The first approach respects both of you and is aimed at helping your partner to grow. It focuses on specific feedback about a particular issue or behaviour and how you may have experienced the person. The second may be fuelled by resentment or anger or the impact of unfulfilled needs and can lead to a character assassination of the partner. Try to focus on the issue at hand rather than escalate the specific issue into a generalised one.
This is an escalation from criticism. This is not a healthy place for a relationship to be. It can involve outwardly aggressive behaviour or passively aggressive behaviour. Whether overt or implicit, acting with contempt is an acting out of toxicity. Gottman says contempt behaviours can include anything that disrespects the other: mocking, sarcasm, eye rolling, scoffing or sighing. The recipient of contempt can feel ‘despised and worthless’, says Gottman.
This can be an incredibly difficult position to move from. It can become so easy to move to a defensive position as a reaction to the slightest perceived hint of criticism. This can quickly escalate into a ‘tit for tat’. You feel criticised. You defend yourself, and possibly attack your partner in response. You find an excuse to back yourself up and argue your corner. Your partner feels unheard and senses that you are not taking responsibility for your part in things. And so your bond erodes and your connection unravels.
This behaviour is often a response to the previous three behaviours. One partner can withdraw from interacting, completing shutting down from responding to their partner. They may avoid, tune out, act busy, or engage in obsessive or distracting behaviours, according to Gottman. Stonewalling is often a final sign that a relationship is in crisis stage. It can feel baffling and abandoning for both partners.
We cannot offer an immediate antidote to this toxicity created by these four behaviours. What is vital is to recognise the patterns you have created and fallen into – sometimes a repeat of early-life dynamics – and to want to try to understand them, change them, and – ultimately – to heal them.
If you feel your relationship is still worth fighting for then it can be a rewarding and supportive experience to work with a couples counsellor. We have relationship and psychosexual practitioners who can help you work through the issues you are facing. Take the first step and get in touch to discuss your options. Call 020 8673 4545 or email [email protected]