Whether you’re just starting out in a relationship, or whether you’ve been together for years, Valentine’s Day can be a timely reminder to work on strengthening your relationship. The goal is to ensure your channels of communication with each other are healthy and positive, not toxic and hurtful.

Dr John Gottman, a world authority on helping people make relationships work optimally says managing conflict effectively in relationships is the key. He says there are four indicators in a relationship, if left unchecked, will turn the relationship sour—criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.

The good news is, he has developed powerful, yet simple antidotes to these indicators that will enhance your relationship for years to come.

Antidote to Criticism—Gentle Start-up

When we are being criticized, it can feel like our very character is being attacked. The antidote to criticism is to complain without blaming your partner by using a gentle start-up. Avoid starting with ‘you’ and instead use ‘I’ statements. Instead of saying: “You never listen to me!” Try: “I’ve had such a tough day. Would it be okay if we talk about it?”

Antidote to Contempt—Culture of Appreciation and Respect

Sarcasm, insults and hostile humour are all examples of contempt. Instead of attacking your partner because they forgot to take out the rubbish again, think about something positive they did such as cooking a lovely dinner, picking up the kids when you were running late or even cleaning up the cat vomit, and thank them for it. Keep looking out for positive actions that they do. You can still say: “I know you’ve had a really busy day. Once you’ve had time to eat your dinner and chill, I’d really appreciate it if you took out the rubbish.”

Antidote to Defensiveness—Take Responsibility

This is when you make yourself the victim so that you can ward off a perceived attack, with the added bonus of reversing the blame. Let’s face it, many of us become defensive when we’re criticized. So, instead of saying: “It’s not my fault we’re going to be late. You should have told me earlier what time we needed to leave!” Try: “I don’t like being late. But you’re right. I could have asked you what time you thought we should leave.”

Antidote to Stonewalling—Physiological Self-Soothing

This is where a person totally withdraws from a conflict, distances themselves and no longer responds to their partner. But instead of completely shutting down and withdrawing, you can take a break and spend some time doing something soothing and distracting. For example, if your partner is angrily saying: “You always do this. I’m sick of it. Why do you do it?!*” Try: “Hun, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I’m feeling overwhelmed and I need to take a break. Can you give me 20 minutes and then we can talk?”

If you don’t take a break you’ll either stonewall, or explode at your partner, potentially saying something you’ll regret. It’s best to do something soothing like taking a walk or listening to calm music.

If you’ve tried these antidotes and things are still going wrong, seek out a trusted relationship counsellor to support you and your partner.

Photo by Jesse Goll on Unsplash