Words Can Be Your Relationship Deal-breaker

deal-breaker

Watching your words can save a relationship.

The reasons that relationships untangle and relationships end in infidelity or break-up might well be tracked to three key deal-breakers: money arguments, disagreements about children, and unkind words. Lack of respect for one’s spouse can lay the foundation for irreconcilable conflicts. A startling article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out this week in “Meet the Marriage Killer” that nagging is often the deal-breaker.

And often times nagging and unkind words come about either because of thoughtlessness or frustration.

Can falling out of love happen because of your words? Unkind words, that indicate a lack of respect for one’s spouse, lead to the disintegration of relationships.

The deal-breaker words

Therapists are quick to tell us to watch our words. The unkind words that we hear from an angry spouse are those that drive a wedge in relationships.

* When will you ever learn?
* Why don’t you get it?
* How many times do I have to tell you?

“These words make the problem worse,” he said, “because the message the person hears is this: ‘I am incomplete.”

Neglect as the Silent Relationship Killer

Another deal-breaker is what Puhn refers to as “the silent killer” in relationships — neglect. “Foremost in a relationships, you need to be your mate’s head cheerleader. It’s common that over time we stop appreciating our mate, and that’s when the mate’s eyes start to wander. If you are not your mate’s head cheerleader you are leaving the job open for someone else,” she cautions.

There is a very simple way to try to resolve conflict and the words “We need to talk” won’t do it.

She is the advocate of “The 5 Minute Priority Conversation” where you put your cards on the table — but in this case think of a sandwich.

  • Bottom slice is the positive –
    ..“I love you and I miss being close to you. Can we talk about it?”
  • Between the bread you place the problem –
    ..“Our life is not what it once was and I don’t want to go on pretending that everything is fine. . . .
    ….How do you feel?”
  • The top slice is to lay out solutions –
    ..“If both of us want things to be different, then I am sure we can change the situation together.
    ….I think we need to make the relationship our number one priority. What do you think?”

Saving your relationship

For my newspaper columns I often talk with therapist Michele Weiner-Davis. She says, “It is important to know that no matter how bleak things might seem, it is possible to revitalize a relationship [even one] deeply wounded. But it takes teamwork and commitment from spouses willing to work hard at getting their relationship back on track. Re-establishing trust and finding ways to manage overwhelming painful emotions are key to the healing process.”

To help a relationship get back on track — try making words of gratitude a part of your daily conversation. Let the words, “I love you” light up your eyes so he believes that he is feeling loved. And a warm touch can be magical.

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I Don’t Feel Your Pain: Overcoming Roadblocks to Empathy

Why empathy is import at home and work and how to be better at it.
Published on March 7, 2013 by David F. Swink in Threat Management

What is Empathy?

According to emotional intelligence author, Daniel Goleman, empathy is defined as (1) understanding the emotional makeup of people and (2) treating people according to their emotional reactions. Goleman and other emotional intelligence and workplace competency researchers have consistently identified empathy as a core component of emotional intelligence and a powerful predictor of success in many professions. Empathy helps us to develop deep levels of rapport and trust.

Having poor empathy skills can lead to serious consequences. It can lead to conflict born of misunderstanding. Without it we can feel lonely within a relationship. Lack of empathy can cause companies to make catastrophic blunders that alienate their customers or employees and it can even incite violence.

The Importance of Empathy

Recent research conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital has shown solid evidence that physician empathy plays an important role in forging strong patient-physician relationships and boosting patient satisfaction as well as patients having better treatment adherence and suffering from fewer major medical errors.

Empathy is also important in the workplace. A study conducted by the Center for Creatively Leadership investigated 6,731 leaders from 38 countries. Their results reveal that empathy is positively related to job performance. The study concluded that managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses.

Our Brains on Empathy

Neuroscientists have recently discovered that humans are wired to experience empathy through multiple systems of mirror neurons in our brains.

Empathy (software)

These mirror neurons reflect back actions that we observe in others causing us to mimic that action in our own brains. When we observe someone in pain or when we are with someone happy, we experience that to a certain extent. These mirror neurons are the primary physiological basis of empathy. They create a neural Wi-Fi that connects us to the feelings of people around us.

Many people seem to be naturally empathetic. Others are not. The good news is that research shows that empathy can be learned. There are however a few potential roadblocks to empathy that must be overcome.

Overcoming Roadblocks to Empathy


Roadblock 1 – Not Paying Attention

Mirror neurons kick in strongest when we observe a person’s emotions. We see facial expressions, eye expressions, body position, and gestures. We may lack motivation to pay attention to a person or we may be too distracted by our own thoughts or by other things around us while we are multi-tasking.

The Solution:

Motivate yourself to be more empathetic by knowing how important empathy is to success at home and work. Put your PDA and computer away and minimize distractions. Learn about and practice active listening.

Fine tune your nonverbal observation skills. Learn about micro-expressions target=”_blank” (small quick facial expressions) and eye reading. Daniel Goleman in his book, Social Intelligence, states that “the more sharply attentive we are, the more keenly we will sense another person’s inner state.”

Watch TV with the volume down and practice your nonverbal interpretation by reading what each character is feeling and talking about. This is best done with subtle dramas, not action movies.


Roadblock 2 – Feeling the emotion of the other person but not knowing how or when to communicate empathetically.

The Solution:

Increase your awareness about your own non-verbal expressions (eyes and micro-expressions). Notice what you are doing nonverbally when you are interacting with others. Ask people that you trust, to give you honest feedback about your non-verbal communication in various situations especially ones that are more emotional.

Notice with whom you have difficulty being empathetic. Examine why.

Learn more about voice tone. Listen to people who are known as empathetic leaders, teachers, friends, politicians, or even TV interviewers. Listen to how they use their voices to express empathy.

Try saying the sentence, “I’m sorry that happened to you,” several different ways with various voice tones. See if you can tell which sounds most empathetic or ask someone else to give you feedback.

Recognize that there are some situations where it may be counterproductive to respond empathetically, such as when a person is sending signals that they don’t want to interact with you or they don’t want to share with you how they are feeling.


Roadblock 3 – Not feeling the same emotion of the other person but knowing intellectually that you need to communicate empathetically. This is known as cognitive empathy.

The Solution:

Know that you can disagree with someone and still understand what they may be feeling and why. This is especially important when someone is having a strong emotion and is asking you to do something that you can’t do.

Sometimes just listening without judgment is enough to convey cognitive empathy. Communicate to the person in an authentic way that you understand what they are experiencing.

Can you fake being empathetic?

Sometimes it may be necessary to act empathetically to achieve a desired outcome even when you feel antagonistic to a person. Eg. hostage negotiators are trained to act empathetically toward the hostage taker in order to establish the rapport necessary to influence him to give up and not hurt anyone. In fact, the negotiator most likely despises a person that would hold a woman and baby as hostages. What is interesting is that after a couple of hours many negotiators actually start to feel some empathy toward the hostage taker as a result of “acting” empathetic. Most of us will never find ourselves in that position, but you may need to fake empathy to influence someone to an important end. Hopefully, you won’t experience that frequently, because there is often a price to pay for being consistently inauthentic.

Empathy is one of the building blocks of social intelligence. Stress, self-absorption, and lack of time can gang up on empathy to kill it. Knowing what your empathy roadblocks are and exploring ways to overcome them can help you develop a tool that is vital to your success at home and work.

Do you believe people can increase their ability to be empathetic?

Have you increased your empathy skills or helped others to do it? How?

What impact do you believe empathy plays in the workplace?

Do you think some people are too empathetic?

It Takes Two to Tango (But It Only Takes One to Love)


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For most couples, conflict involves a gradual—or not so gradual—escalation of hostilities. But there is another way to dance through our love, and it contains some pretty “unexpected” steps…

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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a mixture of several stubborn-blooded ethnicities, including Irish and German. His wife is mostly Portuguese, so her blood tends to run a little hot.
Kelly Flanagan admits, when they were first married, they had no idea what to do with all of their hardheaded energy.

In his eBook, he describes one fight that ended with a door slammed so hard it cracked right out of the plaster wall. His wife and he were experts at “negative escalation” of conflict. Most people are.

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The Dance to Divorce

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Negative escalation is a cold, clinical term describing the very hot kind of one-upmanship that happens during most conflict, both within marriage and without:

You yell—I yell louder.

You put up walls—I lay my walls with brick and mortar.

You insult—I sling back an even more painful zinger—So you insult my mother—So I insult the way you mother our children. And so on.

Each iteration of the conflict is like climbing the rungs of a ladder. Except it’s the ladder of vengeance, and when you finally reach the top and fall off you don’t bust your skull—you break a heart or two.

But here’s the really counterintuitive and disturbing fact revealed by decades of “sequential analysis” research: positive escalation is also damaging to marriages. That is, couples who engage in a quid pro quo exchange of positive behaviors also report less satisfying relationships.

When our behavior in marriage is dependent or contingent upon what has been done to us—regardless of whether that behavior is positive or negative—it results in the destruction of relationship.

In high-conflict marriages, we obliterate our love with hostility and anger. In polite marriages, we smile our way into saccharine staleness. It takes two to tango—two people executing all the expected, eye-for-an-eye steps in relationship—and we can dance ourselves all the way into divorce.

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Love is In the Unexpected
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It takes two to tango. But the the good news is, it only takes one to love. The very same marital research has revealed negative escalation can be disrupted when just one partner chooses to do something different and new.

As it turns out, love is doing the unexpected. Love is refusing to read from the script. It’s refusing to play the usual games. Love is laughing at yourself when you’re supposed to be yelling at your partner. Love is snuggling in when you would normally be choosing a night on the couch over a night in the bed. Love is a cup of coffee on the bedside table the morning after a big fight. Love is a surprise, and it only takes one.

And sometimes, the biggest surprise of all is when we respond with empathy instead of a retort.

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Transforming Conflict into Common Ground

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Empathy is a place of common ground where we understand the interior landscape of the other because we feel it, too. I know what you’re wondering: How in the world can we find that kind of common ground when we’re cut and bleeding from the daggers being thrown at us?

The answer is deceptively simple but painfully hard: the daggers lay the foundation for common ground. When our partner is hurting, they behave in ways to make us feel exactly the hurt they are feeling. They want us to “know what it feels like.”

Kelly Flanagan see this happen every day in marital therapy: Husband hurls an insult and wife gets hurt. He stop the interaction and he ask the wife how she feels and she says, “I feel hurt and alone.” And the angry husband fires back, “Well, that’s exactly how I feel.” They often look at Kelly Flanagan in stunned disbelief when he says, “Good, now you are both feeling the same thing. You can make that the common ground where you meet and have real empathy for each other. Or you can keep fighting. The choice is yours.”

And the truth is, it is up to each spouse. Either partner can be the one to do the radically unexpected—to transform that hurt into a place of empathy, to put down the verbal weapon that will move the conflict to the next rung of the vengeance ladder and instead to take a step down.

The surface of our conflict is loud, so we rarely become aware of the quiet and shared emotions beneath the surface. The gentle, vulnerable emotions whisper instead of screaming. They sob instead of shouting. They feel hurt instead of spreading hurt. They go completely unnoticed, and yet they are the common ground in which we can all exist together, look each other in the eye, and say, “Yeah, me too.”


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Climbing a New Kind of Ladder

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Our best research has revealed that love thrives when we stop giving our spouses what they deserve and start giving them the unexpected embrace of all that they are—when we give them, in a word, grace.

Ironically, in this regard, our scientists sound a lot like some of our theologians.

Let’s be still and quiet, and let’s listen for the pain beneath our anger. And when we finally notice the quiet common ground beneath the surface of our conflict, let’s go there. Let’s put words to it. Let’s be vulnerable. Let’s connect within it.

And let’s start climbing an entirely different kind of ladder together.

Comments? What makes it hard to de-escalate conflict and to empathize in this way?  Share your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this post.


Free eBook:

Kelly Flanagans eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new subscribers of his blog.

The 5 Barriers to Empathy in Marriage (And How to Overcome Them)

Empathy is the foundation of any authentic connection. It’s the bedrock of togetherness, it’s the fuel of compassion, and it’s the mortar of grace. We must hone our ability to feel it and to give it. But empathy can be elusive. Even psychologists, who are skilled in empathy, can struggle with it when they walk out of the office and into their homes…

Dusk is closing in when the shrink arrives home from work and walks in the back door. Some nights, all is well. His wife is smiling, the kids are happy. But on other nights, all is not well.

Some nights, his wife is tired and worn-thin after a long day at work and the onslaught of the children’s cries for food and attention. Some nights, his oldest son is anxious and fretting about the upcoming standardized tests, which his teachers have been hyping more than the Superbowl. Some nights, his middle son is sad and distraught about the various injustices suffered by any middle child. Some nights, his youngest daughter is bouncing and bubbling with joy and eager for a Daddy mirror, for someone to reflect all that effervescence.

Some nights, everyone wants a little empathy and the therapist is feeling stubborn.

Some nights, he gets home, and he knows what he should do. He should remember that sometimes the people we love act in such a way toward us that we begin to feel exactly what they are feeling. He should get quiet and notice that just beneath his stubbornness are his own feelings of fatigue and frustration and anxiety and injustice…and maybe even joy. He should notice this and offer himself up, reach out, find the common ground.

He should. But he doesn’t.

Because even for psychologists, empathizing with the people we love is so hard to do. And I think it’s particularly hard to empathize with our spouses. After all, we don’t expect much empathy from our children. But we expect an awful lot from our partners.

The Five Reasons We Don’t Give Empathy

I think there are at least five fatal barriers to establishing empathy in our intimate relationships:

1. I don’t want to go first. In any relationship, both members need empathy. But at any given moment, empathy is unidirectional—it can only flow in one direction at a time. Which means someone has to go first. Someone has to be willing to meet the needs of the other, before their own needs are met.

2. I don’t agree with you. Empathy requires us to place ourselves in another person’s shoes, to allow our hearts to beat to the rhythm of theirs. We often fundamentally disagree with their perspective, and so we are tempted to debate them intellectually, rather than join them emotionally.

3. What if I get it wrong? When we try to place ourselves squarely inside of someone else’s emotional landscape, it can be a little scary. It’s unfamiliar territory. They are inviting us in, but what if we get it all wrong? Empathy can be terrifying if we have any perfectionism within us.

4. I don’t want to feel that. On the other hand, you might know exactly what your partner is feeling. It may bring up thoughts and feelings in you that you would prefer to avoid. If we don’t want to feel our own sadness, we won’t want to feel sadness on behalf of the person we love.

5. It’s not my job to fix you. We confuse empathy with “fixing.” We think we have to do something to take the emotion away, and we don’t want to be put on that hot-seat. Or some of us will have the opposite reaction: I’m going to fix you. But this undermines our ability to provide empathy, as well. Because empathy is not fixing. Empathy is joining.

Climbing the Barriers

If we want to give empathy in our relationships, we will have to sacrifice some values we hold dear:

We will have to be willing to lose, because it will feel like losing. It will feel like our partner’s needs are being met before our own. But there is no other way.

We will have to put aside all of our intellectual debates. Empathy is not a matter of deciding who is right and wrong. It is simply a matter of finding an emotional common ground.

We have to be willing to get it wrong, because we will get it wrong. Empathy is messy. There are no three-easy-steps to accurately understanding the person we love. We have to be okay when our partner tells us we’re not getting it. And then we have to try again.

We need to embrace our discomfort, because empathy will take us into some uncomfortable place within ourselves. If we are unwilling to go there, we need to quit talking to our spouse and start talking to a therapist of our own.

And we have to quit trying to fix things. There will be a time for that later. For now, empathy is about connecting within an experience, not making the experience go away.

Empathy is for Everyone

Some nights, I know that stubborn-grumpy therapist, because he is me. I wish I could tell you he always finds his way to empathy, but I can’t. Some nights he does. Some nights he doesn’t. And you won’t always find your way to empathy, either. But that’s okay. That’s not the point. The point is that we begin to try.

Because empathy isn’t just for therapists, it’s for all of us.

Questions: What makes it difficult for you to empathize? Share your experience in the comments section at the bottom of this post.

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Am I in a relationship with the “right person”?


During a seminar, a woman asked a common question.
She said, “How do I know if I married the right person?”
I noticed that there was a man sitting next to her so I said,
“It depends. Is that your husband?” In all seriousness, she answered “How do you know?”
Let me answer this question because the chances are good that it’s weighing on your mind.

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