Is Your Relationship in Troubled Waters?

By Ellen Borowka

Are you having problems in your relationships? Then perhaps conflict and communication is not being handled well. This article may be able to provide some ideas for healing your relationship with your partner as well as to harmonize your other relationships. These thoughts can assist you in pinpointing problem areas in your relationships.Stormy ship

Relationships commonly have certain conflict and communication problems that prevent a couple or even a friendship from relating in a healthy and supportive manner. There are four basic problem areas that people find themselves struggling with in their relationships.

1. Withdrawal is a pattern in which one partner shows an unwillingness to get into or stay with important discussions. Withdrawal can be as obvious as getting up and leaving the room or as subtle as tuning out or shutting down during an argument. However, if conflict is likely to escalate to the point of physical violence, then withdrawal is necessary to keep both partners safe. If physical violence is a part of your relationships, we urge you to seek help. The flip side of withdrawal is the partner who feels impelled to pursue the withdrawn partner. This starts an endless cycle where the more one partner pursues, the more the other withdraws and on and on.

2. Escalation occurs when partners negatively respond back and forth to each other, continually upping the ante so that conditions get worse and worse. Negative comments spiral into increasing anger and frustration, hostility mounts and partners will often try to hurt each other by hurling verbal (and sometimes physical) weapons. Escalation can be very subtle – voices don’t have to be raised for this vicious cycle to begin. Softening one’s tone of voice, focusing on feelings vs. issues and acknowledging the partner’s point of view are powerful ways to short circuit escalation.

3. Invalidation is a pattern in which one partner subtly or directly puts down the thoughts, feelings or character of the other. Sometimes such comments, intentionally or unintentionally, lower the self-esteem of the targeted person. Invalidation is extremely damaging to a relationship and leads to mistrust and alienation. It is one of the best predictors of future problems and relationship breakdown for it is toxic to the well being of a relationship. Showing respect for each other, ownership of feelings and underlying issues and emphasis on validation is some ways to prevent invalidation. Remember that you don’t have to agree with your partner or friend to validate him or her.

4. Negative Interpretations occur when one partner consistently believes that the motives of the other are more negative than is really the case. Negative interpretations are very destructive, in part, they’re hard to detect and counteract after they have become cemented into the fabric of a relationship. The old saying, “ You believe what you see and see what you believe” is very true of this problem. One who negatively interprets the actions of the other will look for proof to back up their beliefs. This problem needs to be confronted within one’s self, which can be very hard. To do this, first ask yourself, are you being overly negative in interpretation of your partner’s actions? Second, look for evidence that is contrary to the negative interpretations you usually use. And finally, ask yourself if there may be any personal reasons for maintaining this pattern. Perhaps you learned a certain style of thinking while growing up or maybe there’s another reason. Self-reflection can be difficult, but helpful in uncovering unresolved issues.

Now that you have had a chance to learn about the basic problems in relationships, set aside some time to explore the patterns within your relationships. Study each problem area and look at your relationships. Are you and your partner or friend interacting in these patterns? Ask yourself when, how, and why do these patterns arise in your relationship? What feelings are coming to the surface and are there any other feelings beneath those? Think about what issues or situations might be triggering these patterns and what you or your partner might feel you both are accomplishing with these patterns. Finally, where did you learn these patterns and how has that impacted the way you relate to others? It’s important to write down detailed answers to these questions. If you and your partner feel comfortable, answer these questions separately then discuss them together.

Additionally, effectively managing conflict is important to maintaining the relationship. First, take time-outs when an argument becomes destructive, and reschedule the discussion to a better, and hopefully, calmer time. Time-outs should be at least 30 minutes long, though some individuals find taking up to 24 hours to be helpful in calming the mountains & lakesituation down. Don’t allow the conflict to become destructive as that can severely destroy the trust and love in the relationship. Second, establish a conflict contract between your partner and yourself on what is okay and not okay during an argument. Be specific in your contract. Some points to consider: No name calling, blaming, hitting, throwing things or threatening to break-up in anger. Finally, practice active listening with your partner or friend, where each of you take turns listening and paraphrasing what you understand the other is saying. This will help the both of you to develop empathy so you can understand why you each feel the way you do.

It’s not easy to look at these issues. In fact, it can be rather scary to look at the troubled waters that your relationships have sailed into, but I hope these ideas will help you to get closer to calmer waters. If your relationships are severely distressed, do not wait until it is too late to get help. There are people available to help you whether that be your clergy, friends or a counselor. Support from others is so important when working through difficult relationship problems.

The above article contains some modified concepts from the book, “Fighting for your Marriage” by Drs. Howard Markman, Scott Stanley and Susan Blumberg.

Permission is needed from Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC to reproduce any portion provided in this article. © 2017 This information contained in this article is not meant to be a substitute for professional counseling.

Ellen Borowka, MA, Senior Analyst of Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC and her organization constantly remain focused on their mission statement – “To bring effective insight to your organization”. They do this through the use of in-depth work style assessments to raise the hiring bar so companies select the right people to reduce hiring and management errors. LCS can test in 19 different languages, provide domestic and international interpersonal coaching and offer a variety of workshops – team building, interpersonal communication and stress management. Ellen has over 20 years of data analysis and business consulting experience and is the co-author of the books, “Cracking the Personality Code” and “Cracking the Business Code”. To order the books, please visit

If you would like additional information on this topic or others, please contact your Human Resources department or Lighthouse Consulting Services LLC, 3130 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 550, Santa Monica, CA 90403, (310) 453-6556, & our website:

Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC provides a variety of services, including in-depth work style assessments for new hires & staff development. LCS can test in 19 different languages, provide domestic and international interpersonal coaching and offer a variety of workshops – team building, interpersonal communication and stress management.