That said, a relationship without dialogue, without one person being able to express a concern, is also an unhealthy place. Suppressed thoughts and feelings lead to passive-aggressive behavior or the gradual dissolution of affection for one another.
The path out of this relational trap is to first take on an approach of zero negativity: for both parties to commit absolutely to refraining from put-downs, negative comments and behaviors. It's imperative that both members of a couple make a strict commitment to this approach. Not just temporarily, but always.
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In a particularly unhealthy relationship, this might in fact mean that both people have nothing to say to each other for a long period of time. In this case, the dynamic between the partners has become so toxic, so stuck in a loop of one-up, one-down behavior that it's violated both members' feelings of trust and safety.
Ultimately, though, all committed relationships contain a seed, no matter how small it may seem, of meaningful love and affection. Even if the approach of zero negativity leads to, essentially, a vow of silence, eventually the mantle of fear will dissipate and both parties will find the warmth toward each other that they once had. They will find things to say that are neutral, and eventually positive.
As the activated fear in the lizard brain diminishes, both people will begin to feel safe with one another, which is the primary and most important foundation of a healthy relationship.
The zero negativity approach doesn't imply that partners shouldn't be allowed to express concerns or desires for behavioral change in a relationship. It's all about the way it's presented. A hurtful comment out of nowhere, or passive-aggressive put-down is unacceptable. But one phrased carefully and delicately can lead to the desired effect.
One way to frame a safe conversation is to start with a statement like "I'm having a hard time with something, and I want to share it with you. Is now a good time to talk?" If it's not a good time for the other person to hear this, the requester must accept it. But the other person must in turn offer a time he or she would be more open to hearing your concerns.
Knowing that you are going to express something critical takes away the element of surprise and defensiveness in the other person, and allows you to state your concern in a thought out, gentle way. It makes it much more likely that they will be willing to compromise and come closer to your side of the fence.
This is the second step in creating a healthy, constructive environment for change. But again, the very first step is zero negativity. It's a rule that's easy to remember, but may be difficult to follow at first. In time, you'll begin to notice all the ways you were being unconsciously critical — making jokes at the other's expense, speaking negatively about them to others, thinking passive aggressive thoughts. This awareness itself can motivate change.
I challenge you to give it a try — not a word, not a comment, not a glance in a negative direction. It may just take you from zero to sixty.
This article was originally published on Huffington Post and is republished to YourTango with permission from Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt.
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