Will your relationship fail?

Identifying the symptoms of a failing relationship—and how to counteract them.

You're in a relationship and things start to get difficult. Is there something you can do to weather the storm? We chatted with psychologist Travis Bradberry, author of "Emotional Intelligence 2.0" (Talentsmart), about identifying the symptoms that could make your relationships fail.

Q: You talk about the four clear indicators of relationship failure. What are they and when do they show up?

A: The four things are contempt, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling. And they show up when people move past the honeymoon phase.

Q: Do these indicators only apply to romantic relationships?

A: These show up in every kind of relationship—work, family, everything.

Q: How can you work through these indicators if they pop up?

A: When you catch yourself making these mistakes, the only alternative is a repair. This is making a statement or action that is focused on solving the conflict rather than winning or proving you are right. You want to stop winning the battle and losing the war.

Q: How can you repair contempt?

A: You see this often with snide comments, or a rolling of the eyes — subtle ways of showing someone you don't like them. People do this a lot in the workplace with people you feel you're stuck with. I like to draw from the Abraham Lincoln quote, "I don't like that man. I must get to know him better." Focus on what you like about the person. If you look hard enough, there's always something.

Q: What about stonewalling?

A: People do this as a technique where they just turn off. That's their way to win the battle.

The way to repair this is to talk and to listen, because you will not get it resolved without doing that. But [talking] can lead to another one of the indicators—defensiveness. This is when the other person is bringing something up that is making you feel threatened. The way you repair that is to understand they may say something that makes you uncomfortable or that you feel is wrong, but that's OK. You have to be able to listen to what they say, even if you think it's wrong. It's part of being in a relationship.

Q: Do you think people move on because they want to avoid fighting?

A: My neighbor was just talking about this. As soon as they started fighting after seven years of being together, it was done. People called them Ken and Barbie before this. A disagreement shouldn't mean it's over. It isn't how often you fight or how much conflict that predicts failure. It's HOW you fight. You could have a partner with healthy disagreements but if you go about them constructively, that's OK. It's deepening the relationship to get into these discussions, but so many people are just afraid of conflict.

Q: But what about those who just hop from relationship to relationship?

A: They don't tend to do well with repairs. The moment it pops up they jump … . Those people are afraid to fight. And you can't get anywhere by being too neutral. That's stonewalling. You have to be willing to expose the issues and concerns or you won't make progress. Otherwise you'll continue to be a "hopper." So that's where my work starts. It's building that awareness. And once you crack that shell then you can really get somewhere.

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel

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