Relational Climate: Safety, Temperature and Turbulence
If you could have a menu of weather patterns to design the perfect climate for yourself, what would you choose? Sun? Warmth? Snow? Leaves turning? Rain?
In a relationship, you and your partner are responsible for creating the climate you want to live in. Emotional climate conditions include the experiences of safety, temperature and turbulence. In a safe atmosphere, partners can let down their guard and be relaxed and open. There is minimal tension and little threat of over-reactivity. In such an environment, partners feel like they can be vulnerable and authentic.
The temperature of a relationship refers to how warm it feels, on a continuum from frigid to overheated. In troubled relationships, temperature extremes are common and run in repetitive cycles. After a heated exchange, partners move rapidly away from each other, either physically or emotionally, hiding behind a frozen wall. When they emerge for short times, perhaps to do a chore or participate in a family function, the partners’ temporary cold war can quickly erupt into a heated exchange.
Turbulence refers to the level of active conflict. In an unstable environment, just about anything can bring on a war.
Preventative Maintenance: Nurturing Your Relationship
How a couple maintains their relationship will contribute to the climate they create together. Just as your car will eventually stop running if you ignore the engine light long enough, so a relationship will act up when it doesn’t get preventative maintenance. Like any living thing, relationships require time, effort and regular tending. If you want a relationship that feels safe, warm and relatively free of conflict, you will have to invest yourself in this endeavor. The more functional the relationship, the more both partners will be equally invested in that responsibility and privilege.
Nurturing a relationship requires effort on two fronts, each with two sub-categories: 1) communication—facts and feelings about both toxic issues, and non-toxic ones, and 2) time spent—in both shared activities and in conversation about the relationship.
Communication of Facts and Feelings: Toxic Issues
There are five aspects of communication that contribute to a safe, warm relational climate. First of all, a couple needs to be able to openly discuss toxic issues, without over- or under-talking about them. Every partnership has toxic issues, which are determined by the family background and individual history of each partner. Each of us has unique triggers that predate our partnerships, which then collide in the crucible of intimate relationship.
Communication of Facts and Feelings: Self-Disclosure
Secondly, a couple needs to be able to exchange both factual information and information about their internal world. Most relationships start with information exchange, and then move toward self-disclosure as trust builds during shared activities. Self-disclosure requires risk-taking and includes the possibility of disappointment and hurt. The better a relationship is functioning, the more open and fluid both the information exchange and the self-disclosure will be.
It’s important to remember that openness and honestly are not synonymous with criticism, disrespect, or an emotionally reactive demand for disclosure. Functional openness and honestly refers to the sincere expression of personal thoughts and feelings without blame or demand for reciprocation. This requires a good helping of tenderness for the other even when he or she is most difficult to tolerate. The effort expended in such circumstances contributes to the conditions of a safe, warm climate.
Communication of Facts and Feelings: Process vs. Content
Third, how we communicate is more important than what we want to discuss. Marriage researcher John Gottman found that contempt is a better predictor of divorce than any other variable, and contempt can be expressed in simple ways, like a rolling of the eyes. Contempt includes whatever we do, or don’t do, to communicate that we don’t think highly of our partner.
Gottman also found criticism to be a significant factor in creating harsh emotional climate conditions, and can come in the form of either implicit or explicit messages. Implicit criticism includes withdrawal and withholding sex or companionship. Explicit criticism includes direct disapproval or condemnation.
Defensiveness was found to be a third relationship-killer in Gottman’s research. I like to remind myself that there’s no need for defensiveness because if I’m right, I need no defense; if I’m wrong, I have none. Stonewalling—making a unilateral emotional decision to shut down a conversation—is the fourth relationship-killer, says Gottman. How we communicate is certainly a major contributor to the warmth, or lack thereof, in a relationship. (More on Gottman’s research in later posts.)
Communication of Facts and Feelings: Trust and Trustworthiness
Fourth, the level of credibility contributes to the safety and warmth of a relationship. Generally, the more turbulent the relationship, the lower the credibility. It’s simply hard to trust someone with whom we’re in conflict.
And finally, metacommunication—the unspoken messages tied to verbal communication via facial expression, body posture and tone of voice—contributes to the climate of a relationship. This is similar to Gottman’s research that identifies the importance of the process of an unfolding conversation, not just what the content is.
Time Together and Apart
The second way we can nurture a relationship is by engaging in relationship time (time spent working on the relationship or “being there” for each other and interacting on a personal level) and activity time (doing a shared activity together). Functional relationships strike a balance between common interests and separate interests. Dysfunctional relationships tend to develop an imbalance in the time they spend together, either engaging in little time together of either kind or excessive time in both. Either extreme is a way to avoid relational engagement either within the partnership (little time together) or in relationships outside it (little time apart).
The good news is that you and your partner (and it does need to be an equally mutual effort) are in control of the climate of your relationship. The bad news is that couples don’t seek help in creating the climate they want until the conditions are frigid and/or firey, and they want the counselor to wave a wand and change their partner. I tell folks to seek help early and often. I can’t think of a more important thing to keep tuned up, can you?