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How Healthy is Your Relationship?

By Linda Sapadin, Ph.D

Some couples look like they really have it together until the day they shock even their best friends with the announcement that they're getting divorced. Other couples, in contrast, frequently bicker and find fault. Yet, the next day they wake up relaxed, smiling, and appreciative of one another.

Clearly, the health of a relationship is not always evident to outsiders. Moreover, it may not even be evident to those who are living it. Sometimes you don't know if your own relationship is in jeopardy or if it has simply hit a few bumps in the road. Of course, time will tell... nothing stays the same. Things either get better or they get worse. But wouldn't it be helpful if you could assess the symptoms, like people do with medical problems. That way you can either reassure yourself that what you are experiencing is no big deal or that it's good you're seeking help before things get out of hand or that indeed, these are critical and serious symptoms that will have major consequences without immediate treatment.

If you are now reflecting on the health of your own relationship, you should know about five danger signs that indicate big time trouble. Let me summarize them.

  1. Interpreting your spouse's "bad behavior" as an irreversible character flaw. It's not just what your spouse does (or doesn't do) that creates problems, it's also how you interpret his behavior. For instance, if he was supposed to pick up something on the way home from work and he didn't do it, do you think of him as "a selfish man who doesn't give a damn about anybody except himself" or as "a guy who is forgetful and easily distracted." The more negative your interpretation is, the more damning it is to his entire character, the more you view it as fixed vs. temporary (being tired or inattentive), the more your relationship is in jeopardy.

  2. Frequent use of cross-complaining. Cross-complaining is when one person complains and the spouse, rather than addressing the complaint, makes a counter complaint. Picture how you would feel if you told your spouse, "What a difficult day I had" and she responded, "You think your day was tough, you should have seen what I went through." Cross-complaining invariably leads to a feeling of alienation, often expressed as, "I can't talk to you", or "You're just not interested in what I have to say". Much better to listen and respond to whatever is brought up first; then put your own issue on the table.

  3. Treating your spouse with contempt. Obviously, you cannot hope for a healthy relationship if you are chewing up your spouse and spitting him out for breakfast. However, when contempt is less malevolent, it may skip by you without awareness. Beware of disdain that takes the form of:

    • Rolling your eyes as your spouse speaks;
    • Assuming a patronizing, lecturing tone of voice;
    • Responding with gestures of disgust;
    • Making nonnegotiable announcements which cut off all input;
    • Using disrespectful language including name-calling and cursing.

  4. A circular response of criticism and defensiveness. Typical pattern: She is upset with him. He responds defensively, justifying why he's right or giving her a "yes, but" response. She doesn't think he gets it. She becomes more critical, more angry. He becomes more defensive, more distant. As this pattern escalates, she "nags" more, he "stonewalls" more. She feels, "it's useless to even talk to him"; he feels "she's always right, why even bother to respond". The end result: Frustration at the highest level. Not good for the relationship. Not good for each individual's self-esteem.

  5. Not enough good times to balance out the bad ones. We've all been told that "you need to take the good with the bad". But this is easier said than done. For it's not enough to have a one-to-one ratio between good and bad times. Unfortunately, the negative tends to linger longer in memory and take a long time to heal. Hence, count on needing at least five good experiences to counterbalance one bad one. And if the bad one is particularly hurtful, expect that only time and a sincere effort to rebuild trust will make a difference.
So there it is. If you recognize any of these symptoms in your relationship, don't waste any more time in addressing the issues. Wouldn't it be great if thinking of your spouse brings a smile to your face instead of a sigh? I hope that you don't give up on a relationship that still has the potential for healing and growth.

Copyright © 2008: Linda Sapadin, Ph.D
Linda Sapadin is a psychologist and personal coach in private practice who specializes in helping people enrich their lives, enhance their relationships and overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior. For more information about her work, contact her by email or visit her website at PsychWisdom.
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