In our post on Monday, we discussed Dr. Gottman’s findings on the deeply destructive nature of “turning against” your partner’s bids. “Turning against” or “away” describes the behaviors in your interactions between you and your partner that, upon accumulation, categorically spell disaster for your relationship. Today, we would like to part the storm clouds a bit by offering you findings from Dr. Gottman’s research about the true causes of much of the behavior we described on Monday – the real reasons for which your partner may “turn against” you, lash out unexpectedly, or say things that they don’t really mean. We share this information with you in hopes that it will help you to learn the ways in which you can manage conflict constructively. We would like, in short, to offer you help in coping with the most trying interactions in your relationship.  

The first step in building the skills that Dr. Gottman teaches in his marital therapy is understanding – answering the question that may come up when such interactions unexpectedly throw themselves into your life – when your partner snaps at you out of nowhere. Dr. Gottman has discovered that there is an enormous difference between what you think your partner is saying when they “turn against” your bids and what their behavior’s cause usually is! Here is what Dr. Gottman has found “turning against”  says and what it actually means.

“Turning Against” Says:

  • Your need for attention makes me angry.
  • I feel hostile towards you.
  • I don’t respect you.
  • I don’t value you or this relationship.
  • I want to hurt you.
  • I want to drive you away.

“Turning Against” Usually Means: In a direct quote from Dr. Gottman himself, “Unlike ‘turning away’ responses, ‘turning against’ has a bite to it. It’s hard to hear such responses without thinking, ‘That’s mean’ or ‘That was uncalled for.’ Still, I doubt that most people who turn against their loved ones really intend to cause as much harm to their relationships as they do in these exchanges. Rather, they may simply have developed a personal style of relating that’s characteristically crabby or irritable.” Dr. Gottman’s research has revealed that such prickliness is often “the result of many factors, such as having too many demands on your time, not having enough peace of mind, or the lack of a satisfying purpose or direction for your life. Often it’s a spillover of self-criticism that has its origins in the distant past. The problem may also be biologically based irritability that is chemically related to depression.”

Whatever the source may be of your partner’s choice to “turn against” your bids for attention, affection, or support, it still hurts. Sometimes, it hurts a LOT. The build up of ignored bids can end up causing long-term problems in relationships. When your partner habitually responds to you by “turning against” your bids for connection, you feel that you can’t ask them for support and the two of you may drift apart entirely, because it feels impossible to sustain your relationship. Again, we have to stress: You are not alone! Hopefully understanding that the underlying causes for your partner’s behavior are rarely as malicious as they may feel, that what they say and what they mean are usually oceans apart, can help you to take these sudden attacks less personally. 

Of course, these words offer sparse comfort on their own – to understand is only the first step in the journey towards moving away from dangerous patterns of interaction. But it is a necessary first step. We will take you through the next steps (applying this new knowledge) in the next few weeks on The Gottman Relationship Blog. For more details, make sure to find a copy of Dr. Gottman’s bestselling books in a bookstore near you: The Relationship CureSeven Principles of Making Marriage Work, and of course, his new book, What Makes Love Last!

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What “Turning Against” Really Means

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.