When your relationship ends, it's time to take a honest look at yourself
The phone rings and my ex’s name flashes across the screen. My heart rate rises back to where it was 20 minutes earlier when we were mid text argument and I’d decided I needed a break to calm down. My daughter grabs the phone and answers before I can protest. “Dad wants to talk to you,” she says. I shake my head. “I’m working.” It’s true. I am. Even more true is I’m in no state to talk with him, especially in front of my kids.
For the last two years since my divorce, I’ve been taking a hard, honest look at myself. What I saw wasn’t always comfortable, but it was necessary.
When a relationship breaks down you get a choice. You choose where you put your energy. You can spend it feeling like a victim. You can spend it angry and bitter. You can spend it wishing things were different and trying to get them back.
I decided to put my energy into myself. I focused on what I needed and wanted to change post-divorce.
I was determined to be real with myself — everyone plays a part in a relationship breakdown, no matter how bad the other person was, and there were lessons I could learn. I was determined to be successful in love the next time.
Find your honest lesson
The major lesson I needed to learn, as most of us do, was about communication. All couples end up with a communication go-to at some stage.
For some couples it’s a positive one with patient listening and empathy. No matter what the issue is, they respond by hearing each other out and calmly problem solving together.
Other couples end up in a pattern of rapid escalation. Any little issue comes up and they head straight to yelling at each other.
For some couples there are days of silence.
I’d often thought my ex was to blame for our communication failures. He seemed to prefer loud, emotional conflict — “talking it out” — which to me sounded a lot like random yelling. But when I looked honestly at our communication patterns, I realized the harsh truth: I was contributing just as much negativity.
Harsh truths about communication
I’ve always been a good communicator on paper, but when it comes to talking — not so much. I was the girl who hid in the toilets at school to avoid speeches. I mastered the art of looking busy and interested in class but avoiding eye-contact so the teacher wouldn’t call on me.
In romantic relationships and friendships I was a people pleaser, saying what I thought the other person wanted to hear; never able to say no. No matter how crazy their opinion (“You believe in a flat earth, oh that’s interesting!”) I was supportive to the point of denying my own opinions and needs. And, after reading John Gottman’s resources about conflict in marriage, I realized I was defensive.
Once I was honest with myself about my part in our communication break down, I could decide to make a change.
I want things to be different in my life and relationships and that means taking responsibility for my part, learning, and changing my communication style.
When my ex and I entered into the conflict zone over a parenting issue, I fought with myself instead of him. I held back, delayed my responses, and resisted the urge to defend.
I’m not saying it was easy. My entire body was charged. I was primed and gloved up for a fight! I wanted to say, “You’ve got that so wrong!” “That’s not how it was at all.” I wanted to charge into the ring and defend myself.
But, there’s a bigger picture I need to focus on. Your ex is your ex. If you want a new healthy relationship, all the old patterns need to go.
4 Communication Styles to Fight Against
Communication plays a major part in your relationship success. It pays to be honest with yourself and examine whether you can see a pattern in your own communication style.
Relationship researcher, John Gottman, discovered four patterns that couples use which lead to a relationship breakdown. He labelled these the four horsemen, borrowing an end-times metaphor. If they’re left to continue they can end a relationship. We use these patterns because they give us short term satisfaction. It feels powerful to hit out at someone with a critical word or contempt. Long-term, though, they do a lot of harm.
Whether it’s with your partner or your ex, here are four patterns you’re better off without.
This isn’t straight critique such as “I am getting sick of doing the dishes every day. I’d like you to help.” Criticism is an attack on the person’s character. “You’re so lazy! You didn’t forget. You’re just selfish!” It can become a pattern that gets worse and worse over time.
Contempt often follows criticism. It’s next-level meanness. Think of the mean kids at school — the eye-rolling, sarcasm, mocking, imitating, and name calling. “You’re such a liar. So pathetic.” Yip, we do it as adults too.
According to the Gottman Institute, “contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce.”
You feel like the victim when you’re being defensive. You’re being attacked — you have to defend yourself, right? The problem is defensiveness just escalates a fight. The other person hears excuses. They hear you not taking responsibility. They feel like you don’t understand the problem. “I didn’t do the dishes because I was so tired. You could have reminded me.”
Defensiveness is often a way of deflecting all blame onto your partner.
This happens when one partner (or both) get flooded emotionally by the argument. It can happen quite quickly especially if they feel under attack. You can probably picture it: you’re sitting watching Netflix while your partner tries to talk about an issue. The more they talk, the more you ignore them. “Are they still talking about that same thing?” You act busy, walk away, and refuse to engage at all.
It’s impossible to discuss anything if one person feels flooded. Stonewalling is a sign you need space to calm down.
Recognizing a pattern you don’t like is a huge first step.
Our communication styles form over time and takes time to change. We need to learn new healthier ways to communicate and we can’t expect to break old patterns quickly.
As long as we’re willing to keep being honest with ourselves, life gives us plenty of opportunities to practice and change for the better.
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