If you ask ten people what the most important predictor of relationship success is, nine will say communication. It’s the most trumpeted piece of relationship advice in history.
It’s good advice, but there’s more to the story. Couples need regular, honest communication to build and maintain a rewarding relationship. And they need to communicate in a caring way.
How you communicate is at least as important as whether you communicate. Communication can be more destructive than silence. Marriage expert Dr. John Gottman has been able to predict which couples would divorce in the future with 94% accuracy. What is the single biggest predictor?
(The other three are criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling.)
Couples who attempt to demean one another, disrespect their partner’s feelings, or create feelings of insecurity and anxiety are highly likely to divorce. Are some individuals more prone to feeling and expressing contempt? What causes people to adopt this very damaging style of communication?
In Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well authors Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone demonstrate that being able to receive and act constructively on feedback depends a great deal on the way in which feedback is given. For the receiver, it’s important to understand what motivates the giver in order to set boundaries if necessary. Some people use feedback as a way of remaining in control of the relationship.
“This need for control could be motivated by their own fear: If you partner didn’t always have you scrambling to be worthy of their love, you’d notice there was nothing in the relationship for you.”
This is precisely what is at work when one person works actively to instill dread in their partner. An attractive and desirable person does not need to create drama to demonstrate their appeal, because others will naturally be drawn to that person. Only those who cannot sustain attraction or intimacy resort to negative reinforcement for personal gain.
Heen and Stone refer to this as “taking the relationship hostage.”
“People sometimes seek attention by holding the relationship hostage because they don’t have the skills to express their feelings of insecurity, anxiety or hurt in any other way.”
Some have defended the hostage-taking tactic by saying that it may be the only resort with a partner who is disrespectful or using contempt. This is essentially doubling down on bad behavior and does not work.
How can we communicate our legitimate complaint or dissatisfaction without destroying the relationship in the process?
“A warning is a good faith attempt to explain possible legitimate consequences, whereas the purpose of a threat is to manufacture consequences that will induce fear.”
Early in our marriage, I had a bad habit of interrupting my husband in social situations. I didn’t mean to be rude – it was thoughtless enthusiasm most of the time, but he experienced this behavior as contempt. On two or three consecutive occasions, he told me when we got home exactly when and how I had interrupted him during the evening. Finally, he said that if the behavior continued, he would not be willing to socialize as a couple.
That was a warning because the consequence was legitimate, if severe. Even an ultimatum can be a legit warning:
“Things have gotten so bad that if this behavior continues I will leave the relationship.”
Again, a simple statement of fact about real consequences.
Threats work differently.
“Threats have the same “if-then” structure, but spring from a different motive: to induce fear or dependence, to lower self-esteem or confidence, to control or manipulate. The consequences are manufactured for that purpose.”
If my husband had wanted to threaten me, he might have said, “If you won’t treat me with respect, there are lots of other women who will.” Or he might have been less direct by flirting with another woman, as a way of disrespecting me and making me afraid or jealous.
Instead I became extremely aware of who was speaking in group settings, and was careful not to interrupt. I also made a real effort to be attentive and encourage my husband to share his thoughts in a group.
Can you imagine how things would have gone if his approach had been to saunter over to Jane and flirt with her? I would have been upset but also embarrassed by his inappropriate behavior. Now we’ve got a really complicated problem! Digging out of layers upon layers of retribution and emotional manipulation is nearly impossible.
The person who uses threats in a relationship is practicing what psychologists call “intermittent reinforcement,” an addictive reward pattern that is the motivator in gambling and gaming.
“We win just often enough to keep us playing. When we do win, we’re desperate to win again; when we lose, we are even more desperate to play until we win.”
When we’re in what Heen and Stone call a Hate-Love-Hate relationship, our partner dangles and promises unconditional love or approval but it never comes. Just when we’re about to give up, approval is briefly bestowed, then withdrawn again. This is a powerful dynamic that is damaging for both parties, but especially the receiver of this treatment. They “hate the hate, but it makes their need for the love even more intense.” That is why dread “works” in the sense that someone sticks around, at least until the predictable divorce occurs.
Guard your relationship from contempt. You can do this by embracing vulnerability and laying it on the line.
“I feel hurt and embarrassed when you interrupt me at dinner parties.”
If your partner cares about your feelings and is invested in the relationship, they will want to make things right immediately. (Even if it takes them a couple of tries. :-/ )
If your partner treats you with contempt or disrespect, the dynamic needs to change asap. If it’s early days, the guy does not make it through the filter. If you’re serious with someone who uses direct or indirect threats, do not marry them until you’ve resolved the problem. If you’re already married to someone like this, you have a 6% chance of staying that way.