- Harsh start-ups. When conversations start with criticism, sarcasm or contempt, they are referred to as conversations that have begun with a harsh start-up. A conversation that begins with a harsh start-up will end on a negative note. A harsh start-up pretty much dooms a conversation to negative results, which is a failure. If you have a conversation that begins that way, stop the conversation and start over, whether you started talking that way to a child, a spouse, a co-worker or a subordinate.
- Toxic patterns. There are four.
- criticism rather than complaint. A complaint addresses a specific action or event, criticism is global. "You don't care" or "You are forgetful" or anything that sends the message "something is wrong with you" rather than "something is wrong with what you did" or "please change the way you are acting/what you are doing" is a criticism rather than a complaint.
- contempt. Sarcasm and cynicism reflect contempt. Contempt leads to conflict (obvious or hidden) and withdrawal and preempts reconciliation, blocking it.
- defensiveness. It doesn't work. The hidden message is always "the problem is not me, it is you and I want away from you."
- stonewalling. Tuning out is turning away and giving up, whether you recognize it or not.
- Rejected repair attempts. A repair attempt is a call for a time out, a white flag, an attempt to set things right. When repair attempts are rejected it is a rejection of reconcilliation. For example "you left the milk out and there is a mess." Someone who says "that sure was stupid of me" is making a repair attempt. If you pile on at that point, you are rejecting the attempt. Children often make very blotchy repair attempts. When they do, teach them how to make better attempts, don't just crush the blotch.
- Loss of positive memories. You need to build, refresh, recall, share and nourish positive memories. Positive memories lead to positive attitudes. Do you give someone the benefit of the doubt because of positive attitudes or do you just assume the worst? If you are assuming the worst, you are killing your positive memories.
If you do those things you can repair and save a failing relationship. If you are in a relationship that has those elements, it will probably fail (well, the r^2 on failure is over .83).
Don't ever let yourself start saying "you always" or "you never" or "you are so selfish" or ... unless your goal is to end the relationship. Do spend time every day with a positive memory (the reason for things like gratitude lists). Do share positive memories every day.
You can (and probably should) complain, it is how people help each other improve. Part of a useful boss's feedback is complaints. Properly training a secretary includes teaching them to complain. But universal criticism (as defined above) is useless and toxic. It poisons what should be memories that make a couple glad of each other, replacing those memories with acid burns.
Nourish good memories and good responses instead.