The positive signs of a consummate relationship are: intimacy, passion and commitment, as mentioned in our previous post. Also mentioned in the article:
Like the Circle of Security with a child, an intimate relationship should have the Secure Base where each can explore and venture the world, and come back at the end of the day into a Safe Haven to recharge and gather strength.
Emotional intimacy is the shared psychological experience most encountered by the couple on a daily basis. It is the space where the couple share how their days went, the troubles they had and their deepest hopes and dream. It is also the space where the couple talk about how they feel about each other and about the relationship in general. Emotional intimacy is the ground to hold such conversations, so it is important to ensure this ground is fertile for growth.
- Destruction vs. Construction
- Criticism: Correction of blame placement.
- Defensiveness: Correction of rejection and nonacceptance.
- Contempt: Correction of overt judgment and condescension.
- Stonewalling: Correction of escape.
- Lean towards authenticity, vulnerability and solution-focused conversations.
Cultivating emotional intimacy is largely a communication process – verbal and non-verbal. In the discussion of the following destructive behaviours of relationship breakdowns, bear in mind these behaviours involve what is said, observed and felt by each person.
Classic relationship research has shown that relationship/marital dissatisfaction and separation/divorce can be predicted by the presence of these “4 Horsemen of Relationships”: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling. These destructive processes have the tendency to degrade the quality of the relationship, restricting authenticity and personal vulnerability from showing up – leading to emotional withdrawal. Nonetheless, these behaviours are commonly observed in relationships because their negative effects are seldom thought upon. Effective couples promptly deescalate such processes, while ineffective ones feed on each other and involve furthermore of the other listed behaviours.
Each of these processes are explained and suggestions for more functional reactions are provided to cultivate emotional intimacy.
Criticism is about blame placement. Blame in a relationship can be placed on the problem or the person. Criticism is when the blame is placed on the character of the person, such that the person can feel devalued and rejected. When the core of a person is judged, the person will naturally feel the need to defend and protect the sanctity of one’s character, which leads to the next destructive process: defensiveness.
Solution: Refocus any blame on the problem, not the person. If there is a problem, comment on the problem and how the problem affected you, and describe what could be done better to help you in the relationship next time. And check-in.
Do this, “When you arrived late for dinner just now (problem), I felt worried and scared that something could happen to you, and I also waited for a long time (effect on me). I’m thinking if next time you can inform me that you’re coming late so at least I can have a peace of mind (suggested solution & effect). Do you think that is possible? (check-in)“
This is a constructive process to create space for empathy and ideas for improvement. Both can work on the problem, and the receiver is less likely to take it personally. Eventually, the relationship will function better for both.
Rather than, “You are late again, same as last week. I wish you can be less inconsiderate.”
Steer away from character judgements, such as “you are inconsiderate/ illogical/ unreasonable”, and absolutes, such as “you always…” and “I’ve never…”. Such usage will only attack the other and close the conversation down.
Defensiveness is about nonacceptance and rejection. Defensiveness can occur for legitimate reasons, such as when unfair comments are made about us, or non-legitimate reasons, such as not willing to take ownership for our contribution towards a problem. But the issue here is not whether it is legitimate or not, it is whether defensiveness is destructive or constructive.
Defensive actions imply “don’t put all this on me”, telling the other person “you might want to take a look at yourself”, and “I’m not listening to you now”. You can imagine how easily criticism can spawn defensiveness. The process of mutual understanding and constructive conversations will cease. Resolution to this conflict is to depersonalise the comment and refocus the issue from person to problem.
Solution: Explore the rejection and nonacceptance, instead of rejecting at the outset upon making assumptions about the other. When you feel the need to defend, comment on how you are affected by the comment, check with the other is that what was meant. Then, refocus the comment on the problem, and discuss what could be done better.
Do this, “When you said that I was inconsiderate (criticism), I felt that all that I have done for you were discounted, and I felt devalued in this relationship (effect on me). Is that what you meant? (Check-in). I know that you’re unhappy with me being late (refocus comment on problem), what would work for you next time if I’m late again? (discuss solutions)?“
The receiver redirects the conversation from person to problem, and begins the constructive process by offering understanding and empathy for both.
Rather than, “You know that the traffic is always heavy after work. After going through all that, now I’m being blamed. If you can just be a little less demanding…”
Steer away from reacting to the emotional trigger to defend, and express the feeling underlying that defense, before the trigger (e.g., hurt, devalued).
Contempt is about overt judgment and condescension. It carries heavy judgment on the disliked qualities of the other, and shows up as disrespectful behaviours, such as name-calling, ridicule, sneering and eye-rolling. It also connotes a “I am better than you” message, forming a distance of higher-up of self and lower-down of the other. Contempt immediately breaks the equality and trust in the relationship, whereby one attempts to degrade the other, by imbuing verbal and non-verbal judgments.
Solution: Resolve the core of such strong judgments. The opposite of judgment is curiosity. Usually, in a relationship, each person presents some qualities that can be challenging for the other. Be very aware of this list of qualities that gets to you. When they show up, be curious about how it is showing up in the other and let the other know how it affects you. It will begin the process for you to come to terms with it, or to effect some positive changes. Heavy judgments to degrade is unlikely to shift such behavioural patterns.
Do this, “You know I have a problem with you being late in the past and it shows up repeatedly these days (negative quality), I would like to understand what you’re struggling with recently, it must be straining for you (curiosity & empathy). This consistent pattern just makes me feel like you’re not interested in how it affects me (consequence of quality). Can we talk about how to make this better?
Rather than, “Well the traffic is apparently more important than me (eye-roll). Seriously, not even a text message? I would have done better if I’m late.”
Steer away from acting on the judgment triggers. Reduce any behaviour to widen the relationship gap. Stay with curiosity and explore the internal judgment.
Stonewalling is about escape. It is about withdrawing any further physical and/or emotional interaction from the other. Stonewalling is usually one of the last resort when the interaction is spiraling downwards for too long, and there is no hope in further discussion. While its intention could be to prevent further damage or resistant to change, stonewalling cuts the relationship metaphorically into two – neither one is able to communicate with the other. Stonewalling places the relationship on eggshells because neither party can hold the space for constructive problem-solving.
Solution: Stonewalling is about escape and experiential avoidance of the negative processes. For certain, the previous three processes would have been showing up repeatedly unaddressed. To resolve stonewalling, both parties have to stop, cool down emotionally, and re-address the damages they have done to each other. Use the above-mentioned solutions to go through each of them. Both parties were hurt, and each party has to be given the time and space to clarify and explore the hurt.
Do this, “We have been hurting each other with no end in sight. What I am feeling right now is to end this conversation and leave. But I know it will hurt us even more. Nobody wins here. Can we take some time to cool down and talk about how hurt each other all this time? I think we need to work this out.”
Rather than, “There’s no point talking further. Just go away.”
These 4 processes are known as the “4 horsemen of relationship apocalypse” because they have huge destruction value. To correct each of these processes, the common thread is to lean towards authenticity, vulnerability and solution-focused conversations. Showing up as being real creates the space for both to empathise and care genuinely, while having solution-focused talks help to progress the relationship, rather than dwelling on the negatives. Working through these processes may not be straightforward, it is almost a new skill to acquire. I strongly believe these processes apply to any relationship and not just intimate ones. Come back to this post to be reminded, and keep practicing to cultivate emotional intimacy.
Original writings by The Realist, inspired by encounters in professional work in life coaching, physical therapy and PhD research.