How do you know when your relationship is maladaptive?

by Temecula psychologist Linda Comin, Psy.D.

Over the last two decades there has been focused attention on the importance of emotional intelligence and remaining connected.  The hypothesis is that the greater the emotional intelligence of the couples relationship the more successful the relationship.  Emotional intelligence is a predictor of the “good enough” connection the couple have.  What is really interesting about connection/attachment is that it is a sustaining force in our life from birth to death.  It increases our chances of surviving and having longevity over time.  It is also the first thing in our committed love relationships misfire.  It may look like complacency, or emotional and social disengagement within the couple.

 

The divorce statistics in America are astounding, and in first marriages it is 50%, in second marriages it is 67% and third marriages it is 73%.  Given these statistics it would make sense that if you have a good relationship you would want to keep it in good working order.  Therefore it would be wise to keep your marriage or committed relationship fine tuned like a musical instrument or like taking our automobile in for periodic checkups to make sure that it is in good enough working order.  Yet how many of us do this?  In my 30 years of experience in working with couples it is very rare to see a couple present for treatment in the early stages of marital or relationship discord.  It is more the norm to see couples present for treatment when there relationship is in so much distress that it cannot be ignored anymore. 

According to renowned psychologist, Dr. John Gottman who has spent 20 plus years researching relationships, the first sign of a troubled couple is when there are more negative than positive interactions their emotional repertoire especially during conflict. The therapist’s goal is to assist the couple in promoting positive outcome patterns.  This is done through being able to differentiate what is adaptive from what are maladaptive patterns.

The second, indicator that suggests there is a problem is “nothing is good enough” syndrome.  It is when everything you do is being scrutinized and criticized by your partner.  The affect is more negative than positive.  What appears in the relationship is what Dr. Gottman refers to as the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse”.  The four markers of this second factor are, criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling.  The therapist’s goal here is to teach the couple new ways of connecting with each other. 

The third dysfunctional pattern is withdrawal/isolation.  This is what is known as emotional disengagement.  This will appear as a marked lack of sharing within the couple, the following indicators will be low, affection, humor, demonstration of interest in each other, excitement, playfulness, happiness, supportiveness and empathy.  The therapist’s goal here is to suggest that the withdrawal must end.

 

The fourth indicator is repeated unresolved conflict, and a failure to repair those conflicts.  The goal of therapy here should be not on conflict avoidance but rather on helping couples toward conflict resolution, by increasing their skill set in communication.  This is accomplished by helping them to repair hurtful/angry feelings.  Couples need help to learn how to process their feelings in ways that support the relationship. 

The fifth indicator has to do with what is known in psychology as “projection”.  This is a defense mechanism whereby the individual fails to see his or her own errors and attributes all negative errors/traits to their partner.  What is particularly interesting about this is that in the beginning of a relationship it is completely opposite.  The individual will attribute more positive attributes/qualities to the partner than negative.  So what is it that happens over time in dysfunctional relationships that changes this dynamic?  According to the research it is the erosion of the friendship the foundation of the relationship that begins to deteriorate over time.  Therefore the antidote to this is to rebuild the friendship, as this is the strength the foundation.

 

The sixth indicator is shutdown due to chronic unresolved issues/arguments.  Issues overwhelm the couple and this leads to fight or flight in all relationships not only between committed relationships.  The reason for this is that our physiological arousal system is present.  It is like being in a constant state of raised anxiety; heart rate is increased, increased respiration, perspiration, and blood pressure, which cloud our ability to listen and make decisions. The antidote to this is to help the couple develop awareness of their physiological arousal and then learn stress-reducing strategies as well as self and other soothing techniques, which will enable them to be more present to each other and increased ability to listen to each other with empathize and validate.  The goal is to increase productive dialoguing between the couple to promote problem solving. 

In summary a couple needs to remain aware, mindful, playful, and compassionate with one another.  Therefore, renewing friendship and learning new ways or forgotten ways of engaging with each other to promote a healthy relationship.  This is the first of a series of articles on relationships and how it reflects on a balanced life experience.