The COVID-19 pandemic has left a huge mark on society, with overcrowded hospitals, personal tragedies, and severe restrictions. Likewise, it has impacted our most intimate relationships, especially those with our partner. Suddenly we were all locked up in the house; team meetings via Zoom in the bedroom, children having class in the living room. Work and private life could no longer be separated. And all the time we were in each other’s space, each other’s emotions, without any chance of space for ourselves. Every day. The whole day. Without any prospect of change. This has pushed many relationships to the brink. Problems and feelings have been magnified and things that we could previously ignore are now too obvious. Some couples have more conflicts, while others have drifted apart even further.
Under pressure, we go into survival mode and revert to the deeply ingrained patterns of our childhood. This can cause us to fall prey to four toxic behaviours that undermine our relationships. The first is emotionally disconnecting, turning away from your partner when they attempt to make contact, through touch, a glance, or a conversation. Our reasons for doing so are valid – perhaps we are emotionally overwhelmed and want to shield ourselves – but that does not make it any less painful for the other person. They might feel rejected, unwanted or unseen, and it becomes that much harder to have an important conversation or mend things after an argument. And while a relationship thrives on loving contact, it withers in the coldness of distance. The second toxic behaviour is criticizing your partner. Sometimes this happens overtly, for example in the case of “you never listen to me” or “you can’t be trusted”. Sometimes, however, the criticism is packaged more subtly: “well, seems I’ll just have to do it by myself again” or “you’re not going to whine again are you?”. This pointing of fingers, this judging, puts pressure on the other person to do something that may not fit with them at all. Also, it gives them painful messages about how defective they are as a person. Sure, criticism can contain a kernel of truth and can come from an understandable place, for example in defense of a value or out of frustration. But the way in which we express it is often experienced as hurtful by the other. Who then comes up with criticism of their own or denies whatever you said, resulting in stone cold silence or an escalating conflict.
A third toxic behavior is to react defensively when our partner expresses dissatisfaction. Instead of listening or taking responsibility (because yes, sometimes the other person has a point somewhere), we explain why the other person sees it wrong, portraying ourselves as a victim or denying that something is true. The other then feels not heard or attacked, so that he or she only tries to make the same point more strongly or at some point just gives up to get something done. As a result, even more pain is saved subcutaneously. Finally, there is contempt. The feeling we have when we reject something in the other, find it objectionable, feel unappreciated. And expressed in a facial expression, our posture or the tone of our voice. It can be very healthy to hold someone accountable and we certainly don’t have to accept all the behavior of others. But contempt is about one’s core, one’s soul, who that person is. And in doing so, we reject the other, we wound them deeply, and we poison the source of the relationship, which is the love of all the beauty and good of the other. Contempt is therefore a clear sign that the relationship is in danger.
The existence of these toxic behaviors is not necessarily anyone’s fault. Sometimes there is something underneath our personal history, something that happened in the distant past. And sometimes a dynamic arises between partners because they have no better way to deal with, say, feelings or conflict. The first can be healed and the second can be learned. This can strengthen the relationship or prevent a breakup. And that is such a nice prospect. Because the pandemic is far from over and before we know it we are again / still locked in the house with each other…
If you would like to strengthen your relationship, please contact us.