a christian perspective on the world today

Six Habits That Are Killing Your Relationships

“Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards” (Song of Solomon 2:15). These were the loving words of Solomon, king of Israel, to his bride. The king was known for his great wisdom and understood that it’s the little habits that eat away at our relationships and keep us locked in cycles of unhappiness. These “little foxes” are still running through our relationships today—and they need to go. But we will only succeed at getting rid of them if we replace them. “‘Something better’ is the watchword of education, the law of all true living.”1 The six “little foxes” that are most common in relationships are criticism, escalation, invalidation, defensiveness, withdrawal and misinterpretation. Often, these things become habits that we barely notice we are doing, but once we become aware of our tendencies, we can form better habits.

Some criticism can be expected but too many of them, over time, depletes the relationship’s “emotional bank account”. Patterns of excessive criticism predict divorce in marriage and  breakups in dating. The replacement behaviour for criticism is affirmation. This includes things like encouragement, praise and compliments. To move into the affirmation zone, ask the question, “What is right about my partner and my relationship?”

The ideal affirmation-to-criticism ratio has been identified by many, including Harvard Business Review, as at least five to one—five affirmations to one criticism. In the Bible we read the advice to “comfort each other and edify one another” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). The word edify comes from the same root word as “edifice” and means, literally, to build up. Build up your partner and you will both reap benefits.

What we call “losing our temper” involves explosions such as yelling, shouting, throwing things and, God forbid, physical aggression. Anger causes emotional “flooding” and it compromises higher brain function. As we rage, we may feel that we’re finally “speaking our truth” but, in fact, we’re often warping the truth. We “see red” when reality is actually red, blue, yellow, orange, green and purple. And as a result, we say things that cause damage, sometimes in the long-term.

The most common cause of anger is an external locus of control. This is a sense that “everything that impacts me is outside of me”. We forget that while we hate what our partner does, we have a choice as to how to react to it. Prayer is a great way to reinstate an internal locus of control. In the moment of temptation, “go vertical”, shooting a prayer up to heaven.

A replacement for escalation is timeout. A couple can agree ahead of time that when the issue begins to escalate, either one can “call it”. The person who calls the timeout agrees to take responsibility for rescheduling the conversation. This way, neither partner feels abandoned.

Invalidation can be described as a put-down, usually pertaining to the feelings and experience of your partner. Because of its subtle nature, invalidation can be hard to explain. So, let’s look at some examples:

  • Ordering: “Smile!” “Be happy!”
  • Isolating: “You’re the only one who feels that way.” “It doesn’t bother anyone else, you know.”
  • Ridiculing: “You must be kidding!” “You can’t be serious!”
  • Reason: “There’s no reason for you to feel that way.” “You’re not being rational.”
  • Judging and labelling: “You’re a cry baby.” “You’re too sensitive.”
  • Should-ing: “You should be happy.” “You should be thankful.”
  • Sarcasm and mocking: “Oh, you poor thing. Did I hurt your little feelings?” “Well, I wish I had your problems.”
  • Guilt-tripping: “Don’t you think of anyone but yourself?” “What about my feelings?”
  • Philosophising and clichés: “Time heals all wounds.” “Every cloud has a silver lining.”
  • Religion-ising: “God will help you.” “The Lord knows.”

The truth is, many of these invalidating statements are true and valuable in their rightful place. But they become invalidation when the speaker does not also listen effectively and empathise. Skipping the listening step ultimately turns potentially helpful input into invalidation. The replacement for invalidation is careful listening and validation of what your partner feels before launching into a response.

(Credit: Diva Plavalaguna)

Self-defence has its place. Falsely accused? Misrepresented? We must at times stand up and speak up. But as with most things, we overdo it. Marriage expert John Gottman calls defensiveness one of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” that wreak destruction in marriage.

Defensiveness is a pattern of self-protection, a readiness to challenge or avoid criticism . . . and criticism can indeed be difficult to receive. What the defensive person may not realise is that their behaviour also hurts the criticiser, because the criticiser feels unheard.

Often, we become defensive because we have foundational underlying misbeliefs like, “I should be perfect”, “People should never find anything wrong with me”, “No-one should ever criticise another person,” or “Every criticism is an assault on my character”. Those unrealistic expectations lay a foundation that makes it almost impossible to receive reasonable feedback graciously.

The replacement for defensiveness is openness. You heard that right. The very attack that you perceive as destructive to your happiness may be a blessing in disguise. Try to “eat the meat but leave the bones”. Take what that person is saying and extract from it the valuable part.

We sometimes need a break from one another. The problem is that withdrawal can take on a life of its own. Little spates of silent treatment can grow into total retreat. And in extreme cases, some spouses live in total, chronic withdrawal.

How sad when this occurs. Partners stand on opposite sides of the broken bond, unable to cross over. What’s missing in this scenario? A robust repair system in the relationship. Repair is the replacement for withdrawal—a calm conversation complete with good listening and appropriate apologies. Once the habit of repair is established, it becomes easier to navigate.

A man said to his wife, “You look beautiful in blue.”
She said, “Oh! You think I look ugly in red.”
He said, “I love your curves.”
She said, “You think I’m fat.”
He said, “They say that gentlemen prefer blondes, but I love your long, dark hair.”
She said, “How often do you think about blondes?”
He kept trying to give compliments to his wife, but she kept negatively interpreting them. Finally, he stopped trying.

The replacement for misinterpretation is checking in. Checking in involves seeing if the way you’re interpreting your spouse is actually correct. If your partner says, “I love you in blue,” you might say, “Are you saying that I don’t look good in other colours?” And your partner would have an opportunity then to correct that misconception. “No, no, I’m not saying that at all. I love you in all colours, it’s just that I especially like you in blue because it brings out the blue in your eyes and I love your eyes.”

Further help
I’m sure we’re all guilty of these behaviours from time-to-time. But the more we are aware of these habits and how they hinder the quality of our relationships, the more steps we can take towards having healthier relationships.

Please note that we have only scratched the surface for the solutions we can start to apply in our relationships. Many couples will need coaching or counselling to assist in implementing these changes.

Jennifer Jill Schwirzer is a musician, counsellor, wife, mother and lover of Jesus. She is an international speaker, written 14 books and runs workshops to improve people’s relationships. Abide.Network is a mental health coaching and education ministry serving clients virtually.

1. Ellen White, Education, Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2020.

If you’d like to love better, check out this course on relationships!

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