According to relationship expert Dr. John Gottman there are very specific things we should and should not do in our relationships. The use of something he refers to you as “toxins” can make or break our personal and professional relationships. I was not so surprised when I first learned about the four toxins that affect not only the health of relationship but our physical health as well. I have spent that last few years practicing reducing the use of these in my own relationships and although it continues to be a work in progress I can see and “feel” the benefits. So, what are these toxins you say? Toxins are as follows:
- Blame/Criticism (character assassination)
- Contempt (low grade hatred)
- Defensiveness (need to protect ones self)
- Stonewalling (avoidance)
If there are high levels of these in the relationship we are stuck in a perpetual cycle of conflict that cannot be resolved. We must first work on reducing the toxins beginning with Blame before we can actually work on our relationship problems or have constructive conflict.
Blame usually shows up first and goes hand in hand with contempt or a feeling of low-grade hatred. This can be directed at our self or at another. If Blame enters into the space unnoticed we would automatically feel defensive. Have you ever felt the need to defend yourself yet nobody has directly blamed you? Well, that’s because there is a feeling of being made wrong that is being experienced and not named. If we experience, over the long term, high levels of blame, contempt and defensiveness we will most likely begin to stonewall. Stonewalling is avoidance and is not to be confused with a time out or a break with the intention of picking up the conversation at a later date. It is a physical response to being triggered too often. We will actually begin to avoid the person or event that triggers us. Blame and criticism is often a big trigger for many of us! Harsh tone of voice also can be triggering. We will often see men stonewalling as they get triggered sooner and stay flooded longer than women.
So, what can we do about this? Well, there are few things. First, agree to go on without the use of toxins, name them in a gentle way and create a plan for no longer using them or for dealing with them constructively when they do appear. They are the gateway to abuse so if you can nip it in the bud with Blame than you are on the right track.
As I always say awareness is key so just begin by noticing where and how they show up and if you are feeling courageous name them in a gentle non-blaming way. Say, I feel defensive right now, or I feel blame or I feel like stonewall and not talking anymore or… I feel triggered and need a break.
The key is to keep it simple, avoid the use of the toxins and you will change your relationships and the way you do conflict. Remember, what’s trying to happen in any given situation is far more important than who is doing what to whom.