How We Treat Our Partner(s) Matters
Why minding our actions in relationship improves the quality of our lives and what to do to improve.
How do you feel inside of your relationship with your partner? Do you feel loved, treated well, respected? What do you notice about how you treat your partner(s)? Are you kind, direct, and loving? If you are like most of us, you sometimes find yourself struggling with maintaining clear, loving, and respectful behavior within your relationship. If so, you are not alone.
Many of us grew up in homes where the people who raised us struggled to manage their own emotions and interactions in a healthy way. Most of us were never offered a class on emotional regulation and respectful communication in school. In young adulthood, we attempted to respond to economic pressures by developing skills in many areas, but not intimate relationship skills. In society, we rarely see kindness, respect, integrity, and healthy conflict modeled within relationships of any kind. With mental health and relational wellness consistently on the back burner of our home and cultural education, it's easy to see why so many of us struggle in intimate partnerships.
Often, our adult romantic partnerships are the places we first try to practice skills that we have yet to learn. Additionally, no one is more likely to see our human weaknesses, experience poor treatment by us, or demand accountability than our partner(s). Life can be difficult and full of stressors. Most of us just want to come home to a peaceful and happy place where we are wanted and welcomed. When what we experience instead are complaints, criticisms, and conflict, it is easy to feel defeated and exhausted. In the midst of life stressors and relational challenges, it may feel like making positive changes in your relational behavior is the last thing you want to do. However, healthy and happy partnerships have long-term benefits to our overall mental and physical health and are frequently reported as a major point of gratitude and satisfaction in life.
What defines bad behavior in relationships? Research on couples has found four primary behaviors that lead to the degradation and demise of a relationship: contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness. These four behaviors were one of the markers that consistently predicted relational distress and led to divorce in research by John Gottman and his team. These are actively harmful behaviors that degrade a relationship over time. Active harm looks like ignoring our partner, yelling, shouting, name calling or mean comments, derogatory statements, and defensiveness. In addition to active harm, there are behaviors that are passively harmful to relationships. These are the things we forget to do in our relationship that would make it stronger. Examples of passive harm are: forgetting to share explicit gratitude for our partner, acts of service or kindness to our partner, public/community acknowledgement of our partner's impact on our life, sharing what we find remarkable about our partner.
Take a moment here to pause and think about how you feel inside of your relationship if you have one right now. Now, think about how you treat your partner when you are angry, upset, feel slighted, are anxious or worried, or feel you haven't been seen, heard, or valued. If you can identify a few problematic ways you and your partner treat each other, you are not alone. In fact, managing our emotional reactions and behaviors towards our partners is one of the greatest challenges couples face. It's a challenge that often occurs in secret, because most of us are ashamed of ourselves when we treat our partner poorly. We know that it disrespects not only them, but ourselves. We often know that it is wrong. So, what do we do about it?
Here are some steps to practice both over time and in the specific moments when you are struggling to manage a harmful behavior.
Step one: begin to develop awareness of how you feel inside.
We are the most likely to treat someone else poorly when we are stressed, upset, sad, or feel like we are not valued. In order to have any kind of harmony in a relationship, we have to develop awareness of our internal world. A few ways that people develop self-awareness are: journaling, speaking with friends about how we feel, attending therapy, and mindfulness or meditation practices. An easy tool is to use an emotional distress scale (0= living my most chill and best moment ever, 10= if someone so much as blinks at me I'll lose it) and identify where you are on the scale throughout the day. Specifically, check where you are on the scale before encountering your partner - this will inform you about the current likelihood of accidentally acting out on your partner.
Step two: identify your go-to behaviors when you are distressed inside.
We each have specific behaviors (usually 2-5) that show up when we are internally distressed. Some examples are: shutting down, demanding all available attention, snarky comments, attempts to control another person or our environment, leaving, intellectual put downs, or laughing at someone in distress. It is important to know what our go-to behaviors are, so that we can identify, predict, and interrupt harmful patterns in our relationship. Knowing our common patterns of reaction help us to keep our side of the street clean and interrupt harmful behaviors before they occur.
Step three: practice impulse control or behavior replacement.
When we are learning to stop behaviors that are harmful to our relationship, we have to develop skills around how we stop ourselves. Some examples of alternatives when we feel the impulse to act are: leave the room, text a friend that you are having a moment of struggle, practice breathing, take a three minute shower, name how you are feeling (ex. I am super stressed and upset right now), listen to a song, splash cold water on your face, squeeze a stress ball, lay on the floor or against a wall, write down your stress on a piece of paper.
Step four: let your partner know that you are having a hard time.
It is better that our partner knows when we are in a high stress/low tolerance moment, so that we can both try to manage immediate stressors within the relationship in a way that minimizes potential for harm. This doesn't mean that you will never enter into stressful conversations together or that you are off the hook for developing better relational skills, just that you try to monitor your level of tolerance during exchanges in order to protect yourself and your partner from potentially harmful behaviors.
We are responsible for how we behave in our relationship. Our partner is responsible for their side of the street. We don't get to blame our partner for our bad behavior - that is ours alone. If we want peace, joy, healthy conflict, and respect in our relationships, we have to begin by becoming peaceful, joyful, respectful, and direct ourselves. In a culture that often models competition, superiority, and dominance, becoming healthy in intimate relationships poses a challenge and is counter-cultural if not revolutionary. Our relationships are ours to reclaim and the lessons may not be supported by our greater community or society. Your family may not understand or feel slighted when you choose to heal and grow, your friends may not get all this change, but ultimately, it is your life to live and your relationship to cultivate. Have strength and good luck!
Here are some podcasts that may support you and your partner(s):
Where Should We Begin with Esther Perel
Black Love Matters
Best Podcasts About Polyamory
For Couples Workshops by the Gottman Institute
If you and your partner(s) are consistently struggling with harmful behaviors, it may be time to get some help. There is no shame in getting help for developing skills that many of us were never taught. The best way is to ask your current therapist for a recommendation (if you have an individual therapist), ask for referrals from your community, or use https://www.psychologytoday.com/us with the "marriage issues" filter.