Sometimes the people we are in close relationships with are the hardest to show kindness and compassion to. In this episode Gordon shares some of the research and science behind relationships. It turns out that the key to healthy relationships is tied to recognizing interaction patterns, self-regulation, and curiosity. We can learn how to heal broken relationships and be more kind and compassionate in our key relationships. Listen in as Gordon draws from research and his years of experience in working with hundreds of couples as licensed marriage and family therapist.
Why we hurt the ones we love
“Love hurts” is a common theme… A lot of songs about that! There are several hypothesis around why we tend to hurt those closest to us. These include, but are not limited to:
- We see in others similar faults to our own.
- Out of a sense of control or retribution (“getting even”)
- To gain attention or to engage the other person
- As a form of self-sabotage or guilt; taking out our frustrations on others
- No consequences for doing so; we get by with it
- Being triggered by past emotional trauma.
What defines a healthy relationship
Although every relationship is unique, there are some characteristics of what healthy and lasting relationships look like. The research from Dr. John and Julie Gottman from the Gottman Institute reveal these characteristics of health relationships:
- Over-all trust and commitment
- An ability to manage and repair from conflicts
- General sense of affection and admiration
- Similar values and life dreams
- Accepting the other’s influence
- Knowing and understanding the other’s internal world; “what makes them tick”
- Treating the internal world of the other with kindness and compassion
Patterns of Interactions
In my work with couples over the years, I often tell them, “I could really care less about what you are arguing about. But what I am interested in is HOW you argue.” What I mean by that is the patterns of interactions and how people handle arguments is key to having a healthy relationship.
After all, it is unrealistic to think that significant relationships will be conflict free. Every relationship has conflicts. The key to a healthy relationship is in developing healthy interaction patterns when there is conflict.
A good pattern of conflict management involves:
- An ability of each person to self-regulate their own emotions. In other words, not letting the “anger thermometer” get too high.
- Knowing when to table hot topics for both people to get a better perspective
- A willingness to listen and truly hear out the other person
- Getting curious about the other person’s internal world and experience
- A willingness to accept the other person’s influence and do things their way
- An ability to repair things when there has been something that hurts the other person
- And finally, a willingness to forgive and let go. Saying “I’m sorry I hurt you” goes a long way in healing things that have hurt.
Criticism and Defensiveness
According to the Gottman’s’, one of the most common negative patterns couples can get into is a pattern of criticism and defensiveness. And if not corrected or changed, over time, it leads to “stone-walling” (avoiding the other person) and/or contempt in the relationship.
The Gottman’s refer to these things as the “Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse” (Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling, and Contempt). And also according to the Gottman’s’ research, if these patterns are not corrected or changed, the relationship is doomed to end. Especially if there is a level of contempt in the relationship.
A big part of having healthy relationships is having people that are emotionally healthy themselves. In other words when both people are able to manage their own emotions well, they can then handle the emotions of their partner better.
Another way to think about it is, what is your part in it? In other words, being aware of how your own actions are contributing to the problems that are happening.
This is often referred to as emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is something that is learned as we grow up but can also be learned later in life. It doesn’t mean that emotionally intelligent people never get angry or hurt, but they are able to self-regulate and keep themselves grounded and under control when it happens.
As mentioned above, another key component of healthy relationships is a couple’s ability to repair things once there has been a conflict. The Gottman’s refer to this as “turning toward each other” after a conflict. This in and of itself is the opposite of stone-walling.
Simply put, it is a willingness of both people to “kiss and make up” after there is a conflict or feelings are hurt. This requires both people to be vulnerable with each other and know that the other will treat that vulnerability with kindness and compassion.
And finally, as simple as it sounds, having a healthy relationship involves both people having some affection and positive regard for each other. They are simply nice and caring to each other. In other words, show some kindness and compassion in your relationships. It is the stuff of love and vulnerability.
Healthy relationships are built on kindness and compassion. After all, if you think about it, most of the problems and conflicts we have in life involve other people. Knowing how to self-regulate and repair when there are conflicts goes a long way in helping people have healthy relationships. Also a willingness to trust and stay committed to the relationship. After all, the #1 predictor of relationships succeeding, is a willingness of both people to stick it out with each other. And finally, the sign of a healthy relationship is when two people know the other’s internal world well and treating it with kindness and compassion.
Attachment Theory – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_theory
The Gottman Institute- https://www.gottman.com/
Sound Relationship House – https://www.gottman.com/blog/what-is-the-sound-relationship-house/
“Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” – https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/
Dr. Susan Johnson – https://drsuejohnson.com/
You know, in my work as a marriage and family therapist, um, I, I enjoy more than anything working with couples. It's, uh, kind of, kind of the niche I've car carved out for myself. I do work with individuals on, you know, various mental health issues, but also do a lot of work with couples. And one of the things, um, that, um, has, has pulled me into working with couples is really a lot of that desire that I have to really help people sort through the conflicts that they have, and really figure out how to have more meaningful relationships. You know, our primary, you know, as adults really most, all of us seek out a partner in life. It's kind of built into our DNA, you know, from the time that we're born, we have this innate desire to connect with others. And one of the things that's interesting is, um, you know, the, the, the divorce rates in the United States kind of hover around 50%.
So 50% of all first marriages, I think it's getting a little better. I haven't gone back and looked at the statistics lately, but, um, 50% of all first marriages, um, end in divorce. And that's kind of a, a sad prospect. And probably I think for some folks that are cynical, they'd say, well, why even bother if it's that bad of a, that bad of a statistic, but the truth of the matter is we need other people. And like I said, just said, is that it's kind of wired into our DNA. We want to seek out others, you know, from the time we're born, we have to connect. You know, if you think about a little baby and the need that a baby has to be held to be nurtured, to be loved to for the parents, to look into the baby's eyes and, and give that affection, if we don't do that, the baby ends up suffering from that.
Um, so we really need to have relationships. And the other thing that's an interesting kind of phenomenon is you look at the number of people that are out there that have either gone through, uh, are in their second or third marriages. Uh, and so you, you logic would kind of tell you that, okay, if I had bad experience with relationships, uh, then I, I don't want to try to do that again. I should, you know, just stay on my own, but we, we don't do that. We very quickly seek out others to be in relationship with. So it's a really, really, if you think about it, it's really a primary need we have as human beings is to be in those close intimate relationships. Not only when I say intimacy, uh, not only mean like ULA LA intimacy, but kind of intimacy of, of emotion.
And that's really the foundation of a healthy relationship. So what I'd like to talk with you about is to think about, um, what makes up a healthy relationship. And it turns out that there's been a lot of research into this, about what, what constitutes a, a healthy relationship and a lot of what I'm gonna talk about in here. I wanna give, uh, credit where credit is due. And this comes from the research of the Gottman's John and Julie Gottman are a husband and wife research team that have done over 40 years of research into marriage and relationships. And, um, I'm gonna have a link here to their Institute. The got Gottman Institute will be here in the show notes, but John and Julie Gottman, what they did is they, they took couples and they wanted to really kind of figure out what makes a relationship last and what makes for successful marriages.
And so, um, what they did is they took couples and they did this with both heterosexual couples and gay couples. And, um, they, they just put 'em in this, this retreat center called the love lab that they, they created, and they would have graduate students just observe what was going on as couples interacted with each other. And they would have, 'em wired up to look at heart rate and brainwaves and all of that sort of thing. And what they quickly discovered was that there were certain patterns that emerged as they watched couples interact with each other. And some of the patterns that they noticed were, were healthy patterns, and the couples were doing well with each other, but then there were the other couples that were, they noticed very quickly that if, as they watched them interact, that things weren't going well. And, but what they did in their study too, was to follow these couples over several years.
And the ones that they noticed that had the unhealthy patterns were doomed to fail. And I'm gonna talk a little bit more about those patterns here in a minute, but one of, one of the things I wanted to think about first is why is it that we tend to hurt the ones we love so to speak? And there's a lot of hypothesis around that. And some of the, some of it maybe points to the fact that with those that we're, we're closest to, we can, we tend to be, let our guard down a little bit more. In other words, we not always on our best behavior. And, and part of that is, is that we can get by with it. But also I think it's just, um, has to do with how we attach with other people, um, not to get too far off on this whole, um, psychological lesson, but there are some things that are both, uh, there's this thing called attachment theory, where it looks at how we bond with other people.
And so there are healthy attachments and unhealthy attachments. There are people that have kind of, of avoidant attachments. There are people that have kind of insecure attachments or anxious attachments. Again, not gonna go too far down that rabbit trail, but I'll try to put some links in the, uh, show notes here. That'll tell you more about that. But the other thing that we have to think about when, why we tend to hurt peop those that we're closest to, I think when we're close to people, we notice in them maybe faults of our own. And so we notice those faults that we own, we have for ourselves, and we kind of take it out on the other person. And I know I've been guilty of that in the past in relationships and will, will, will tend to be critical of somebody else's fault when we really know, uh, for ourselves that we contain that own fault, that, that, that same fault, uh, the other thing too, is, is that when you've got situations where people have gone through trauma, or they've gone through maybe raised in a family where there was a lot of conflict, um, being in conflict with their spouse or their, the person that they're in a committed relationship with, uh, that can be kind of triggering for 'em at times.
And so all of those kinds of things kinda lead to why we tend to hurt those that are closest to us. Um, the other, the other thing is that, um, we, um, might, you know, again, being human, you know, when somebody makes us mad or gets us riled up about something we might want to try to get even, or make, have some sort of retribution with that. And so that's another reason why maybe sometimes we hurt those that are closest to us, but one of the things I wanna start with is really looking at what defines a healthy relationship and then kinda work backwards from that of, you know, what, what we need to look for in our relationships in order to make them healthy. The thing that really, um, and again, this I'm, I'm borrowing from the Gottman's on this and really some of their research and what they kind of discovered as they observed couples over over the years.
Number one is just an overall commitment to the relationship is one of the characteristics of a commit of a healthy relationship. And along with that is trust. And the Gottman came up with something called the, the sound relationship house, which is a graphic they created. And again, I'll put some links in here in the show notes. So you can take a look at that, but the two things that you have to have for any healthy relationship is a commitment to stick it out. And again, uh, that's the, the number one predictor of what makes, uh, relationship successful is both parties being willing to just stick it out with each other through good or bad. And, you know, when you think about most of us in our marriage vows, along the way, those of us that are in married or in a committed relationship, when you make those vows, usually there's something in there about, for better or for worse.
So folks that really buy into that and stick it out with each other, um, you know, will have a lasting relationship. Now that doesn't mean a person needs to go through a relationship that where there's some abuse going on, or there's some really bad things going on in the relationship, but just a willingness to stick it out through the tough times, goes a long way. And then also obviously trust, you know, it's really helpful to be able to trust your spouse and to be able to know that they're gonna be there for you, and that they're not gonna betray you in some way. And this is usually in my work with, with couples, uh, over the years, usually this is the reason that they're coming to see me is that, that in some way, trust has been broken. Um, and it doesn't necessarily mean there's been an affair or any, any sort of infidelity, but maybe there's some sort of emotional trust that's been broken, or maybe there is just a betrayal, either big betrayals with a small B or betrayals with a big B, uh, that go on.
And that, that might be that they have hurt the other one's feelings in some way, or they have been snubbed in some way, or they've been belittled or criticized in some way, all the way up to kind of the big guns where somebody's maybe had an affair, that sort of thing. So you've gotta have that trust in a relationship. You've got to know that your partner has your back and that the person that's in it with you for the long haul is there for you. The other, the other thing that makes up, uh, makes for a healthy relationship is an ability to handle conflict in the relationship. Um, obviously, you know, there are gonna be conflicts in relationship. I don't know of any, any relationship that doesn't have conflicts, but what makes for a healthy relationship is for the couple or the, to, to be able to manage those conflicts well, and then repair any damage that might be done from that conflict.
So, um, that that's at a, a very key component. And again, when I see couples usually that are coming to me for therapy, it's usually because they have kind of come to a roadblock block or an impase in their ability to handle conflict with each other. And then some of the things that are just kind of maybe kind of common sense over what makes for a healthy relationship is, um, obviously there, there should be in a healthy relationship, just a general sense of affection and, and love and admiration for their partner. And again, that's kind of common sense there with that one, most couples that have a healthy relationship share very similar values and life dreams with each other. In other words, they're on the same page about around that. That doesn't mean that, you know, I have had seen, um, uh, very healthy couples that might have maybe different religious or political views.
I've known couples that maybe come from different faith traditions and they respect that in each other and that sort of thing. But so, but they, anyway, there's a mutual respect around all of that. And part, part of it that goes into that, that mutual respect is a couple's ability to accept each other's influence on things. So in other words, to be able to know how to compromise and to be able to not necessarily do it my way all the time, but being able to be, um, take some joy and being able to do it things the way their, their partner wants to do things. The other thing is, um, that really kind of defines a healthy relationship is for both people to know what makes up the other's internal world. In other words, they really understand what makes the other person tick. They understand that internal world, what motivates them, what they're, what they're ashamed of, what they're proud of every, you know, it's kinda like there, there are in, in some ways, a way to put that is that there are really no secrets there.
They know, uh, both, uh, they, they know their partner well, and they love them wart and all so to speak. And, and really ultimately they treat that internal world with a great deal of kindness and compassion. Uh, and so that's a, at a very important key key component of having a relation, healthy relationship. And so what happens when things go awry, those are kind of the things that make up a healthy relationship. And again, this is based on not only the re research of John and Julie Gottman, but there's some other researchers out there. One in particular is sued Johnson, um, who is also, um, a researcher into marriage and family and marriage and, and, uh, couples and committed relationships. And I'll talk a little bit more about them here in a moment, but anyway, one of the things I tell couples when they come to see me as a therapist is, um, and I say this kind of tongue in cheek, but then again, it's kind of, uh, kind of serious in that I really could care less what they're arguing about.
In other words, I, you know, the topic doesn't matter to me what it is they're arguing about, but what I'm really interested in is how they argue, or in other words, the patterns of interactions. And that is where we can make a difference in our relationships when we understand how we interact with each other and how it goes down. You know, I mentioned, um, I mentioned, uh, Sue Johnson, uh, and one of the things that she mentions is is that we can, um, couples can get into what she refers to as demon dialogues. In other words, when it starts, it starts and we're on. And so the, the things spiral out of control, uh, once those kinds of things happen. And so when a couple things about repairing things, they need to start with how they interact with each other and understanding the patterns and how things go down.
And so a good pattern of interaction for couples is an ability, number one, to be able to self regulate. And this is where knowing yourself well comes into play. And also being brutally honest with yourself about how you might be contributing to the conflict in the relationship. Our tendency as human beings is we want to blame the other for our problems, but when we can really begin to look at ourselves after all, if you think about it, and this is a truth, is that the only person we can change is who ourself. And so being aware of that, as you go into thinking about handling conflict with your partner goes a long way. And so, as you think about how you might interact with your partner or that the, the person that you're in a relationship with is being able to really, again, ask that question, what is my part in this?
And what can I do to change how I am interacting with them? That's gonna help the conflict go better. And, and part of that is, again, um, as I've mentioned in previous episodes is really knowing yourself well and being mindful. Um, it involves some emotional intelligence. And what I mean by that is, is that, you know, yourself, well, you know how to regulate your own emotions. Well, in other words, if you're getting angry or getting upset or getting anxious, you know how to regulate that within yourself, it's referred to a lot of times as an internal locus of control. And so being able to, to hone that skill and hone those skills of being able to regulate yourself well, when you're upset or when you're angry, or when you're feeling anxious, or when you're feeling any of the negative emotions, being able to handle that well is gonna go a long way in helping you navigate things in your relationships.
Uh, particularly when there's conflict. The other thing about managing conflict and in relationships is learning how to be curious about what's going on with your partner. Um, you know, our, our tendency is to get on the defensive when there's conflict. And I'm gonna talk about in just a moment, just the typical pattern that happens in relationships, around, um, criticism and defensiveness, but being, being able to recognize when you're getting defensive of being able to kind of change the course of things at that point. So being able to say, okay, I need to take a break here, um, because I'm starting to get angry around these things. And I, I love you. And I want to be able to back off from this a little bit, so we can talk, talk about this kinda rationally or more at an even keel, because if I keep getting angry, I'm gonna not listen.
And that's a, another thing just as a side note here, when we get emotionally flooded with things. In other words, the anger thermometer starts going up. It really debilitates our ability to hear and listen because our amygdala, that part in our brain that is there to protect us, kind of takes over. And we go into fight or flight mode and when a couple starts to escalate and they get into that fight or flight mode, and the amygdala is taking over. There is no dialogue anymore. They are just going at each other and they're not hearing each other. And so that, that's a point at which they do need to back off from things. Now that doesn't mean they need to avoid the, the topic, but be able to self regulate, bring themselves down to a more even keel where they're not angry and then come back and talk about their problems.
Um, that goes a long way in being able to manage conflict. Well, the other thing about being able to manage conflict well is knowing how to repair things. And, um, that is a key feature in healthy couples. Is, is that when they do have a conflict, they maybe have a row, or they're an argument. They come back to each other and they learn how to turn towards each other, uh, after that conflict to make amends, to repair things, to kiss and make up, as they say, uh, being able to do that is a key component of having a relationship, uh, rather a healthy relationship. So let's, let's dive a little deeper end of how conflicts start and how, um, the patterns that we typically see. And again, this is based, a lot of this is based on the research of the Gottman's, you know, when the Gottman's were observing couples.
One of the things that they noticed is that if they saw a particular conflict pattern in the relationship, if those things were not corrected and that what they referred to this as is the, the four horsemen of the apocalypse and what those four components of that, if they saw this going on in the relationship, and if it wasn't corrected, the, the relationship was doomed to fail, and they could predict this with 90% accuracy, if a couple was gonna make it or not based on these four components of what they call the four horseman of the apocalyp of the apocalypse. And those four things are criticism, defensiveness. Another one is stonewalling, and then the fourth one is contempt. And so typically how this, how this plays out is that a couple will get into a pattern of criticism and defensiveness. And our, our tendency as human beings is, is that when we feel criticized by someone, particularly if we feel like that criticism is unjust or is not warranted, we go on the defensive.
And so when couples start into that pattern of criticism and defensiveness, that's when things start to spiral out of control. Um, as I mentioned earlier, Sue Johnson calls these demon dialogues when a couple starts into this, you know, somebody says something that is critical of the other, or is maybe mean-spirited, um, the other person gets defensive and it's on. And so that's when things start to spiral out of control. And so, you know, that it's criticism, if it comes out of your mouth, is you always, are you never, and this is something I point out in couples is to be aware of what you're saying to your partner really matters. It's not what we say. It's how we say it. You know, 80% of communication is nonverbal. So what's not, it's not the words that we say that matter, but it's the tone in which we use.
And also the body language that we use. So to, to be able to counteract, um, criticism, defensiveness, number one with criticism is a, is learning to phrase things in a way that are, make it, you're making a request of your partner rather than offering criticism. So being able to say things like, you know, when such and such happens, I really would prefer that you do blah, blah, blah. And that sounds like a weird kind of way of communicating, but rather than starting out with, well, you always, or you never, you never picked up your dirty clothes. You always leave your socks on the floor. Uh, being able to say instead, you know, it really bothers me when the socks are left on the floor. Do you mind being more mindful of picking up your socks? Totally different way to start a conversation. And then to counteract defensiveness, as I said earlier, is to approach things with curiosity, when you notice that you're getting defensive is to kind of remind yourself or be mindful of getting curious about what is going on with the other person, what is going on with your, um, with your, with your partner?
Um, you know, an example would be, you know, you, you kind, you kinda spoke to me kind of harshly there. What's going on that you're, you're talking to me in that way, because it, it really kind of hurt that you, you said it that way. So again, it's kind of, overcommunication in things. The other, the other parts of, of the four horsemen of the apocalypse are stonewalling. And that is when we just avoid our partner or avoid interacting with our partner. And that's, that's what the criticism and defensiveness pattern leads to if it's not corrected. And then after if the stonewalling and the criticism and the defensiveness is not changed, that leads to contempt. It leads to a couple that gets to where they just really don't like each other. They really don't want to be around each other. And the Gottman say that when a couple reaches that point, really the relationship is over at that point. And, um, it takes a lot to repair a couple when things are at the contempt level. So that's, that's something to be aware of. If you notice that you're feeling that way about your partner, I would really encourage you to get into some therapy to begin to deal with that not only individual therapy, but also couples therapy to begin to work on that.
Well, I know we've covered a lot here in this short episode, but just to kind of quickly recap one of the things, uh, that we need to really focus on when we think about exercising, kindness and compassion in our relationships, is to be able to be aware of the patterns of interaction. You know, couples can get into some bad habits around how they interact with each other, uh, being aware of when you're being critical of your partner and being able to, um, learn how to, when you feel criticized to be aware of not going on the defensive too quickly, because things tend to spiral outta control when, when a, when a couple starts
Pattern of criticism
And the other thing is, is to be able to allow yourself to be vulnerable with, with your partner. Um, as it mentioned already, vulnerability is the key to having a meaningful relationship, uh, of being able to let your guard down and let each other into your inner world, and then treating that inner world with kindness and compassion. Uh, that's a key, those are key components to having a healthy relationship, one that is built on kindness and compassion. And so the other, the other thing too, that I mentioned as a recap here is the importance of repairing things. When you've, when you've had a conflict, when you've gotten angry with each other or any of that sort of thing, is being able to go back and repair and make amends for the hurt that has happened. And then also, uh, continuing to build those, those lifelong commitments through shared meaning and being able to look at your life dreams and being able to, you know, think ahead in, in terms of that being a positive, uh, kind of experience for, for both people to be able to look at their life, uh, look at what their common bond is and continuing to build on that.
And, um, and finally, I would say if you, if you find that you're getting stuck with some of these things that I mentioned here in this episode, I would encourage you to seek out, uh, professionals, maybe to get some help with that, um, that, you know, certainly you could find, um, a licensed marriage and family therapist. And I would, I will say this when you, if you seek out therapy, find someone that, um, is trained in working with couples because that's working with couples is different than working with individuals. And I think it's important to have someone that will, uh, knows what they're doing just around, uh, their training and that sort of thing. Um, also I mentioned in this episode, the resources, again, those links will be here in the show notes and the show summary and, um, to the Gottman Institute, and then also some resources from Dr. Sue Johnson that I mentioned in here as well. So hopefully you find this helpful and, um, hope good luck with your relationships and, uh, do treat each other with greater kindness and compassion.
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L. Gordon Brewer Jr., LMFT |Podcast Host – Gordon has spent his career in helping professions as a licensed therapist, counselor, trainer, and clergy person. He has worked with 100’s of people in teaching them the how to better manage their emotions through self-care and the practices of kindness and compassion. Follow us on Instagram and Facebook . And be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.