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 behaviour is to act defensively when our partner expresses dissatisfaction. Instead of listening or taking responsibility (because yes, sometimes our partner does have a point), we are going to explain why the other person is wrong, portray ourselves as a victim or deny that something is true.
The other then feels unheard or attacked, forcing them to make the same point more strongly or, the opposite, give up. This only leads to more pain.
Finally, there is contempt. The feeling we have when we have no respect for the other person, who we find objectionable, not worthy of appreciation. Our contempt is communicated through a facial expression, our posture or the tone of our voice.
It can be healthy to hold someone accountable and we certainly don’t have to accept everything people do. But contempt cuts into the core of our being, our soul, the very thing we are.
And in doing so, we reject our partner, injure them deeply, and poison the source of the relationship, which is the love we feel for everything about the other person that is beautiful and good. Contempt is a clear sign that the relationship is in serious danger.
The presence of these toxic behaviours in a relationship is not necessarily one person’s fault. Sometimes there is something in our personal history that triggers it, but ultimately it is a dynamic between partners that arises in the absence of a more skillful way of handling, say, feelings or conflict.
The good news is that our personal history can be healed and relationship skills can be learned. This can strengthen the relationship and prevent a separation. And that is a good prospect. Because the pandemic is far from over and before we know it we will be locked up all over again in our houses.
If you would like to strengthen your relationship, please contact us or attend one of our events.