As a relationship expert with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, I’ve heard many concerns expressed by exasperated clients, often 20-somethings and 30-somethings who are evaluating whether they are in the ‘right relationship’ with a partner.
I’ve also heard comments like these from clients who have been married for decades:
- I don’t like the way he talks to his mother.
- His apartment is a mess. You should see it!
- She’s not as interested in physical intimacy as I am.
- It seems like she gossips a lot.
- She drinks too much.
- He’s not religious enough.
- She doesn’t seem very ambitious.
- He’s a sloppy dresser.
- He seems to have a quick temper.
- She shuts down and freezes me out when she’s upset.
When I hear these concerns, I almost always try to steer him or her away from the concern itself, and more in the direction of a far more valuable question:
How would your partner respond if you brought this concern up directly with him or her?
I ask my clients the question above because I know that having an issue like any of those listed can spell trouble in a relationship. And I also know that wherever that issue appears, there also might exist many other problems.
Being partnered with someone for a lifetime is a guarantee that as a couple you will face many such problems.
So, the problem itself is less important than the ability of the couple to work through it.
Clinical psychologist John Gottman found, in a now-famous 2002 longitudinal study aimed at predicting when a couple will divorce, that contempt is a common by-product of a lack of relationship skills.
He also found that contempt is the strongest predictor that a couple will divorce.
To find out if you’re in the right relationship, ask (and answer) these five questions:
1. Can you each manage your anger sufficiently to talk about a difficult problem while maintaining care toward each other?
Try to hold important conversations when you’re between fights.
2. Can you listen to each other’s concerns and control your defensiveness?
Think about your response for at least 10 seconds before saying a word.
Make sure what you say is constructive and moves the conversation forward.
3. Are you both willing to face difficulties and change yourselves in order to sustain the relationship?
Nobody is perfect, and you have to be willing to admit you don’t understand something to learn anything new.
4. Do you each tell the other when you’re upset or need something in the relationship to be improved?
Practice radical transparency without assigning a motive to your partner’s emotions.
5. If your answer to any of the above questions is ‘no,’ would you each be willing to learn these things?
This is, after all, the purpose of this exercise. Do you want to stay in this relationship or not?
What it means if you answer ‘no’
If you cannot answer the questions above with any degree of confidence, then you are not ready to make a lifetime commitment to this person. Consider giving the relationship more time and addressing some more concerns with your partner to see if he or she gets better at it.
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Consider seeing a couples therapist if you need to.
If you’re married and you have some “no” answers, it doesn’t mean it has to be the end. As long as you’re both willing to learn the necessary emotional skills, your marriage can become everything you always wanted it to be.
Everyone has annoying habits, shortcomings, and flaws. Every relationship has issues. Some people never had the chance to learn the complex emotional and interpersonal skills that it takes to have a resilient, lasting relationship.
That doesn’t make them any less lovable. At least not if they are willing to learn the skills.
Jonice Webb has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and specializes in childhood emotional neglect. She is the author of the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. She shares more resources on her website.