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Identifying Problems in Marital Relationships

Fiona Owen

Counsellor and Psychotherapist
Perth, Western Australia

Relationships have to be worked at, much like a business has to be worked at in order for it to flourish. As with a business, signs will manifest when there are problems in a relationship. In order for change to occur, partners need to be aware of the danger signs that a relationship is heading for a rupture. The sooner the problems are identified the greater the likelihood of repair will be. Some problem signs in relationships are outlined here;

  1. Harsh start up of discussion of a disagreement.
    • When the discussion starts up with criticism and/or sarcasm, it has started badly.
    • 96% of the time you can predict the outcome of a conversation based on the first 3 minutes of a 15 minute interaction.

  2. Criticism, contempt, defensiveness and shutting down
    • Criticism: There is a difference between complaint and criticism. A complaint only addresses the specific action or behaviour. A criticism is more global- it adds on negative words about the other's character and personality.
    • To turn any complaint into a criticism, just add "What's wrong with you?"
    • Contempt: Sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye rolling, sneering, mockery and hostile humour are all forms of contempt.
    • Contempt conveys disgust.
    • Belligerence is closely related to contempt. It is a form of aggressive anger because it contains a threat of provocation.
    • Defensiveness: Defensiveness is really a way of blaming the other person- saying in effect "The problem isn't me it's you".
    • Shutting Down: Harsh start with criticism and contempt leads to defensiveness, which leads to more contempt and more defensiveness. Eventually one partner tunes out.
    • Shutting down is the result of flooding, a physical reaction including increased heart-rate, hormonal changes (including the secretion of adrenalin, which kicks in the "fight or flight" response), and increased blood pressure.
    • The physical sensations of flooding make it virtually impossible to have a productive, problem-solving discussion.
    • All you can think about is how to protect yourself from the turbulence the attack is causing. One way to do this is to disengage emotionally from the relationship.
    • In 85% of relationships the man is the one to shut down.
    • John Gottman's research indicates that the male cardiovascular system is more reactive than the female's and slower to recover from stress.
    • Thus marital conflict that activates vigilance takes a greater physical toll on the male, so it's no surprise that men are more likely than women to attempt to avoid it.

  3. Failed Repair Attempts
    • Repair attempts are efforts made to deescalate the tension during a touchy discussion (eg "let's take a break" or "I need to calm down").
    • The failure of repair attempts is a mark for an unhappy future. The presence of criticism, contempt, defensiveness and shutting down are precursors of divorce.

  4. Pervasive Negative Thoughts about the Marriage.
    • When a relationship gets subsumed in negatively, it's not only the present that gets painted in a negative light; the past often gets rewritten in a negative light as well.

Signs that a relationship is in trouble are,

  1. You see your marital problems as severe.
  2. Talking things over seems useless. You try to solve problems on your own.
  3. You start leading parallel lives.
  4. Loneliness sets in.

Counselling provides a safe neutral space for couples to explore how communication is not working properly and what can be done differently, with heightened awareness, to help prevent divorce/relationship break down.

If you would like more information, or to make an appointment, please contact;

Fiona Owen
M Soc Sc (Counselling), B Sc Psychology, Grad. Dip. Ed.
Perth, Western Australia

Main source of information 'The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work". John Gottman and Nan Silver

Fiona Owen is currently on a long term sabbatical, in her absence, please contact one of the other practitioners, or leave a message on the Contact Page.

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