Four common relationship traps that happy couples know to avoid

It’s the little things we do and say that make or break a relationship. Psychologist Dr Ruth Jillings talks us through the common traps to avoid falling into.

All relationships begin with excitement, hope and optimism. We want our new relationship to succeed and we want to deepen our commitment to our new partner. Our deal breakers are more than likely infidelity, abuse or betrayal.

However, in reality these ‘big’ relationship killers seldom account for the end of a partnership. Nor does frequent arguing necessarily spell the end. In fact, arguing can be healthy because issues get aired then resolved. The real risk factors for the demise of love are much quieter and ‘everyday’.

To take a line from the famous T. S. Eliot poem, The Hollow Men:

“This is the way the world ends,

Not with a bang but a whimper.”

One of the most respected experts in the relationships field is John Gottman, executive director of the Relationship Research Institute. He has undertaken an intensive 35-year study of marriage and divorce and analysed thousands of couples over the years. He and his team can now predict, with 80-90 per cent accuracy, whether a relationship will last, based on simply observing a couple for as little as 15 minutes.

Gottman had identified four risk areas in a relationship: contempt, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling. If you and your partner are able to avoid these behaviours you will have a much better chance of enjoying a long-term loving relationship.

Dr Ruth Jillings ([email protected]) is a registered psychologist who specialises in relationships, stress and family issues and runs a practice on the North Shore in Auckland.


According to Gottman, this is the number one predictor of divorce. It is important to understand that contempt is different from conflict.

Contemptuous behaviour includes eye-rolling, sarcasm, mockery, hostile humour and name-calling. Contempt includes all words and actions that convey that one partner feels superior, while the other is made to feel worthless and humiliated.

Interestingly, people in contemptuous relationships tend to suffer more colds and flu than others; a contemptuous partner is believed to weaken your immune system.

Contempt is often communicated non-verbally; occasionally couples take the brave step of filming themselves when they ague and the footage is often incredibly revealing.

The disrespect that is conveyed by contempt always increases conflict. Even if during conflict you can’t generate any positive feelings or find anything positive to say about your partner, you will be making progress simply by staying neutral. It is also essential to speak respectfully.


Don’t panic if you and your partner call one another out on things. It is fine to voice a complaint; in fact, this sort of communication is essential. The key is that a complaint focuses on a specific behaviour while criticism attacks the core of the person.

For example, a complaint is: “I was annoyed when you didn’t let me know you would be late home from work tonight. I thought we agreed we would text if we were running late.”

Criticism is: “You didn’t tell me you would be late again. You are so selfish. You never think of anyone but yourself.”

The issue with criticism is that it can creep into everyday conversation and over time pave the way for further negativity. Recognise criticism and catch yourself as it is happening – and avoid generalisations. When you find yourself saying “you always…” “you never…” you are probably criticising.


This goes hand in hand with criticism because defensiveness is sparked when we feel attacked. Defensiveness is understandable in conflict situations because the moment we feel unjustly accused we tend to ump to defend ourselves. The reality is that this is not conducive to getting problems solved. In fact, defensiveness tends to escalate tensions and end with each partner blaming the other.

To avoid defensiveness, accept responsibility for at least some of the probe. Admitting that you are wrong or have made a mistake is difficult but the ability to own up to part of the issue goes a long way towards repairing a negative interaction. It allows a couple to actually talk about the issue without spending all of their time justifying why they are right and the other person is wrong.

If you can suspend, even briefly, your urge to justify your actions or fight back with criticisms of your own and just listen to what your partner is saying, you will make huge progress. There is usually some valid aspect to a complaint. Finally, a genuine apology for your part will make a huge difference.


Stonewalling is essentially when one person shuts down and withdraws from the other.

Stonewalling is common when relationships are really in trouble. Instead of confronting the issues, one person zones out in various ways.

They may focus on their phone, stay late at work, ignore friendly or unfriendly overtures and basically ‘leave’ or check out of the relationship before it is over. This lack of responsiveness and withholding of attention is hard to combat and leaves the other partner feeling completely rejected.

If you find yourself giving your partner the silent treatment, you are stonewalling. If you need a break that is fine, but let your partner know you are taking a break, not just ignoring them. It can be hard to come back from the silent treatment, so find small ways to reach out. At all costs avoid days of not talking to each other.

To avoid getting to the point of stonewalling, make a point of expressing interest in in your partner. It can be as simple as asking about their day or putting your phone or book down when they begin to talk about something.

Sometimes relationships struggle because we overlook the fact that we have a good person right in front of us, but we have fallen out of the habit of noticing them.

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