When searching for couples therapy, there are a lot of options out there, including Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT). It can be challenging to determine what type of therapy or therapist is right for you and your partner.
Many therapists working with individuals do not have specialized training to work with couples beyond the generalized courses offered in graduate school. And, to be honest, those courses really don’t teach us enough to be truly competent couples therapists. They provide more of a general overview of couples issues but lack the specifics needed to become truly artful and skilled.
Therapists who pursue more intentional advanced training to work with couples, gain experience working with common real-life relationship concerns and develop an advanced skill set that equips them to help couples get to the core of their issues and make lasting changes in their relationship. I (Shawntres Parks, LMFT) am trained in a particular type of therapy called Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT).
The couples I work with love EFT because it helps them experience greater feelings of security in their relationship by teaching them how to meet one another’s attachment needs. This is huge when it comes to creating and maintaining a healthy long-term relationship. If you don’t already know about the importance of attachment style, check out our blog on that too. Ok, now back to Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy.
What is Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy?
Emotionally focused therapy for couples, or EFT, is a short-term approach to couples therapy typically lasting from 15-20 sessions. You might think that sounds like a lot of sessions but, in the world of therapy, it’s actually pretty brief. Emotionally Focused Therapy was created in the 1980s by researcher/practitioners Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg. EFT pulls from several therapeutic approaches that address how and why people connect with each other. Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples provides steps and language to help couples communicate and experience each other in healthier and more satisfying ways.
EFT is an attachment-based therapy. Attachment theory was developed upon the understanding that human attachment, beginning in childhood, continues throughout the lifespan and has a huge impact on our romantic relationships. While attraction, shared beliefs, values, and experiences are all important when we look for a partner, creating a secure attachment is what’s truly important if we want to maintain a healthy relationship.
A securely attached relationship provides a safe harbor to retreat to when life and circumstances are difficult and a safe base to launch from to help us grow and take risks. Couples experiencing the distress of constant conflict, lose that feeling of security that is necessary for each of them to thrive as individuals and a couple. Not feeling securely attached is intensely painful and scary for both partners. Sometimes, it may even lead to one or both partners seeking attachment outside of the relationship, resulting in various types of affairs that only further deteriorate feelings of security in the relationship. Secure attachment can also be impacted by other types of competing attachments such as over-focus on children, friends, extended-family, work, and electronics among other things.
Emotionally Focused Therapy seeks to repair injured attachment by first helping couples recognize what they are doing that threatens the secure attachment. How couples handle conflict is one of the major problem areas addressed in EFT by mapping the “cycle” of behaviors and emotional responses that trap the couple in unhealthy conflict. Once they’ve mapped their conflict cycle, couples are able to unite and fight against it as a team. This mapping process helps the couple become more collaborative, increase positive interactions, and shift away from damaging high-conflict interactions.
Facing your conflict cycle together, rather than facing off against one another, reduces the impact of the conflict and helps it become much more manageable. A therapist trained in EFT will help each partner approach conflict without negativity, criticism, advice, or neglect and respond to each other in a secure and loving way. This different approach to conflict helps repair and strengthen attachment leading to greater relationship satisfaction and safety.
EFT is broken down into 3 stages:
Stage 1 – Assess and De-escalate: In this stage, couples will experience an epiphany when their therapist helps them identify the deep-seated attachment needs that are behind their ongoing conflict.
Stage 2 – Restructuring the Couple’s Bond: In this stage, couples will learn and practice skills to have more positive communication so that they can share unmet attachment needs with one another rather than getting caught in their conflict cycle and fighting.
Stage 3 – Consolidation: In this stage, couples will use their newly learned skills and apply them to any old issues that may still be lingering. They will also look at ways to further integrate their EFT skills and apply them to addressing future fears and concerns.
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy: Who can benefit from EFT?
Couples who are experiencing detachment from their partner due to loveless relationship, infidelity, lack of trust, difficulty communicating, and high conflict all can benefit from working with EFT counselors. EFT counselors work with couples who are actively considering divorce, experiencing infidelity, and/or struggling with excessive or unproductive conflicts. Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy can help to re-engage avoidant, withdrawn, and burnt-out partners by assisting the couple in re-creating enough safety to be emotionally vulnerable with each other.
Emotionally Focused Therapy is a thoroughly researched and effective form of couples therapy and has been shown to be successful with many couples regardless of race, age, religion, or sexual orientation. Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is based in attachment, which is a HUMAN survival need, making it applicable to all of us. According to John Bowlby, the creator of attachment theory, “The need to connect with another human being is the most basic need of the mammalian brain.”
How Can EFT Help?
Emotionally Focused Therapy can help couples by giving them the skills and ability to be more accessible, responsive, and engaged with one another. The goal of EFT is to help couples repair attachment. One of the ways we accomplish this is by teaching you how to manage conflict in a healthier way.
Sue Johnson, creator of EFT, details 3 types of conflict cycles that couples experience: Freeze & Flee, Protest Polka, and Find the Bad Guy.
Freeze and Flee happens when both partners are disengaged and avoidant. No meaningful communication or connection is happening and both partners are left feeling helpless and hopeless. When I’ve worked with couples in this cycle they’ll tell me “I’m not sure that I’m in love anymore,” and “I don’t know if there is any hope for this.” It’s intensely painful for couples in this cycle to live with the emotional distance from one another.
Protest Polka is the cycle that I encounter most frequently in my work with couples. In this cycle, the longing to connect with your partner, and the fear of losing them, causes you to act in critical ways or to shut down, effectively shutting yourself in and your partner out. The way that each partner is trying to get emotional needs met, is the very thing creating and maintaining the disconnection between them. The cycle is so powerful that it easily sweeps the couple away and leaves them feeling more and more helpless and farther away from the love and intimacy that they crave.
Find the Bad Guy is a mutual attack cycle where each partner is always expecting the worst from the other. By expecting an attack, each partner is in a constantly defensive position and ready to launch a counterattack at a moment’s notice. This emotionally exhausting cycle keeps each partner in opposite corners, like boxers in a ring. They’re looking for a fight even when there isn’t one coming. It’s a perfect recipe for conflict and disconnection.
Along with helping you identify and heal your conflict cycle, EFT therapy also teaches you to be more secure partners for one another, resulting in greater emotional balance, the ability to safely express emotional needs, greater flexibility and adaptiveness to each other’s needs, and the ability to give and receive comfort.
Secure partners are more supportive and understanding of one another and are able to safely navigate the inevitable challenges of life and relationships together as a team. Working with an EFT counselor provides couples with a relationship blueprint for security that will benefit them throughout the lifespan.
What to Expect in an Emotionally Focused Therapy Session?
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy sessions can range from 50 minutes to several hours depending on the needs of the couple. Couples typically participate in EFT therapy once weekly, though there may be cases where couples attend sessions more or less frequently.
Because Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy focuses on recognizing and feeling emotions, you may experience yourself feeling emotions you previously felt disconnected from. Many of us shut down or minimize our own (and our partners’) emotions without even realizing it. This is especially true if we grew up in a family where vulnerable expression of emotions was not modeled or encouraged.
As you start to reconnect to your emotional self, you might notice some feelings of discomfort and vulnerability. This is completely normal and all part of the process of becoming a healthier and more whole human who is in touch with their emotions. EFT counselors can handle the intensity and complexity of the emotions that couples bring into therapy and will teach you how to handle it too.
EFT counselors are trained to use their emotions to tune into yours. They will use empathy and compassion, alongside their specialized training, to help you and your partner engage and connect in more loving, supportive, and vulnerable ways. This act of gradually ‘turning-toward’ each other creates feelings of attachment between you and your partner that may have felt impossible at the start of therapy.
Does Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy Work?
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is a well-researched form of couples therapy used internationally to help couples achieve more connected, attuned, and satisfying relationships. Research studies have found that 70-75% of couples undergoing EFT successfully move from distress to recovery, and approximately 90% show significant improvements.
Many couples who experience EFT report that it transformed their relationship beyond what they thought was possible. One such couple I worked with shared that it saved their marriage. They were married for 8 years and it had recently come to light that one partner was unfaithful. While infidelity was the impetus to seeking couples therapy, it was clear that their conflict cycle was the primary issue. Together, using EFT, we were able to identify that each partner’s childhood and adolescent traumas had influenced the use of unhealthy attachment behaviors.
One partner would become emotionally abusive and critical when in distress, while the other would often leave the home for hours, or days when distressed. Over time, these behaviors within their conflict cycle had a polarizing effect, leading one partner to seek out a competing attachment (the affair partner).
Through the use of EFT, the partners were able to establish an agreement that the affair would end, and the marriage would become the primary and only attachment again. Once establishing that safety, we were able to work on turning toward one another in distress and identifying their need for each other, rather than getting caught in the unhealthy conflict cycle. This couple went from having a sex-less and disconnected marriage to establishing renewed and healthy connections emotionally and physically.
Finding an EFT Therapist
Reading this, you may be thinking about your own relationship and realizing Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is right for you. Perhaps you and your partner struggle with communication because discussions often turn into fights. You may feel like no matter what you do to try connecting with your partner, you can’t seem to say or do the right thing. You struggle to be seen, heard, and appreciated for who you really are. The relationship may feel more like pain than pleasure.
I want to assure you that even in the most hopeless of places, transformation is still possible. Emotionally Focused Therapy goes beyond the visible conflict, frustration, and disappointment to uncover the real problem source: the conflict cycle and the impact on your attachment. Together, we can unite and fight against the cycle that is eroding your relationship in such painful ways.
I am passionate about helping couples find their way out of the hopeless wasteland of disconnection and into a space where they are able to love, support, and be vulnerable with one another again. If this sounds like something you need, I encourage you to book a free consultation. As an online couples therapist, I provide EFT online as well as in my Upland, CA office.
Online couples therapy is an incredibly effective and convenient way to fit therapy into your busy schedule and be able to connect with each other from the comfort of your own home. Another great way to start working on your relationship from home using EFT is by reading the book Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson. If you find that or anything I’ve written above resonates with you, I would love to support you in using Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy to restore your relationship.
It seems like everywhere you look these days, there’s advice on how to know when you should call it quits and end a relationship. That’s very useful advice, but how do you know when you’ve got a good one on your hands? Is it, as the popular meme says, when you’ve found someone who likes to leave parties at the same time that you do? Is that just an urban dating myth? How can you tell if you are in a healthy relationship?
WHAT DOES A HEALTHY RELATIONSHIP LOOK LIKE?
How much time do healthy couples spend together? How often are they having sex? Is it true that couples who pray together, stay together?
Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all when it comes to what a healthy relationship should look like. Just as every person on this planet is unique, so is every couple. However, I’ve come up with some common characteristics of healthy relationships. Of course, this isn’t a complete list, but here are a few qualities that make a relationship worth its weight in gold.
Traits of a Healthy Relationship: A Feeling Of Trust
Trust is an extremely important part of any relationship. Without it, you can never know if your partner is telling you the truth, which obviously causes major insecurities. If you can’t trust that your partner will remain faithful to you while you go out with your friends, or spend some much needed alone time, then you will force yourself to be with them at all times, and that just isn’t healthy! You deserve to be with someone who is faithful and does what they say they will do so that you can feel free to do your own thing.
There’s a saying that if you pay attention, people will tell or show you who they really are. And once they show you, believe them! Someone who is untrustworthy will almost always show you their true colors eventually. If you find yourself confused by your partner’s explanations about mundane things, pay attention to those inconsistencies. First, he told you that he was at his mother’s house but later the story is, he was at his best friend’s place. If you mention the discrepancy and he tells you that you are crazy or too possessive, this is a red flag and could be gaslighting. A truthful person, on the other hand, is consistent. Not just in the stories they tell you but in keeping their word in general.
However, trust isn’t just about being faithful and it isn’t just about lying or telling the truth either. It’s also about being able to count on someone to do what they say they will. That’s called being reliable and it’s probably the #1 thing women need from a man to feel secure in a relationship.
Do you want to know if you are in a healthy relationship? Take our quiz now to find out!
Healthy Boundaries In Relationships
Brene Brown has an amazing video where she describes the Anatomy of Trust and one of the first things she talks about is boundaries. A major component of trust is respecting your partner’s boundaries and holding your own. I have another blog post on the topic of boundaries, which is a whole topic on its own.
It’s far easier to have a strong relationship with someone who is truthful, so if you’ve got yourself a reliable truth-teller, that’s one sign that you are in a healthy relationship.
How Often Do Couples Fight In A Healthy Relationship?
Have you ever asked yourself if the amount of fighting in your relationship is healthy? If this question has crossed your mind, you are not alone! The answer, though, has more to do with how the conflict is handled than how often it happens. Conflict is a healthy and normal part of any relationship if done well. There is an analogy I love to tell my clients that has to do with the way bridges are built. According to engineers, the strongest part of a bridge is the part where the metal has been broken apart and then welded back together. This is such a beautiful analogy for conflict in relationships because, if done lovingly, resolving conflict together will actually make you stronger as a couple than you were before you had the fight. Really!
How To Be In A Healthy Relationship: Learn To Apologize
Let’s face it – If you are with someone for an extended period of time, both of you are going to make a mistake at some point. That’s okay, as long as you both know how to apologize. Being able to say you are sorry shows maturity and confidence because it means that you realize you are not defined by your mistake; it’s just something unfortunate that you did. Anyone who has been in a successful long-term relationship will tell you that practicing apologies and giving forgiveness are both things that you will get very good at.
Healthy Communication In Relationships
Speaking of having your feelings hurt, it’s important that you feel like you can bring up hurts and disappointments with your partner. You need to be able to say when something bothers you, without fear that your partner will turn the situation around and blame you. In a healthy relationship, an exchange like this might take place:
You: It hurt my feelings that you didn’t seem that excited when I told you that I’d be taking a photography class. I’m very excited about photography and I’d like to be able to share my excitement with you.
Your Partner: I’m sorry, I didn’t realize it was that important to you. I will be more enthusiastic from now on. Can you show me some of the photos you took?
For contrast, an unhealthy response from your partner might look more like:
“Well, you find a new hobby every week, so how am I supposed to know when to take you seriously?”
In a strong, healthy relationship, you will want to share your feelings with your partner, because you expect him or her to react positively to what you are saying. In healthy relationships, each partner wants the other person to grow and be his or her best self. You don’t try to hold each other back or rain on each other’s parades. Instead, you are there for each other during both the good and bad times. It’s like having someone that you can count on, no matter what.
As I said earlier, this doesn’t mean that you will never fight or argue. It just means, as one healthy relationship quote says, “Even when you don’t really like your partner, you love him anyway.”
What Makes A Relationship Strong: Mutual Respect
Partners who respect each other have each other’s backs. They don’t talk badly about each other to their friends and they encourage each other to grow. It’s so important to be with someone who wants you to be your best self; someone who will stand up for you when you’re not around, and who will help you believe in yourself even more than you already do.
If your significant other discourages you from taking a class or bettering yourself in some way, chances are he or she is afraid that if you grow too much you will leave the relationship. This is toxic! Healthy partners want each other to grow and be the best version of themselves that they can be.
It’s much easier to want your partner to grow if you feel good about yourself. Part of the reason why some relationships are unhealthy is that one or both of the people in them have low self-esteem. This can cause a person to be jealous, possessive, manipulative, or downright nasty in a relationship. In contrast, if both partners feel good about themselves, then the chances that they will treat each other with respect are much higher.
What A Healthy Relationship Looks Like: The Ability To Laugh
Laughter really is the best medicine, and that’s not just a saying. Studies have shown that laughing releases endorphins, our feel-good chemicals. Couples who laugh together report having higher-quality relationships than those who don’t. Laughing can even make disagreements seem less serious. Plus, sometimes, laughing leads to sex, which causes even more feel-good chemicals. So, if you’ve found someone who can make you laugh, you’ve won the relationship jackpot! If you feel like your relationship could use more laughter or positivity, check out this blog post on how to be more positive.
Benefits Of A Healthy Relationship
Research by The Gottman Institute has shown that being in a healthy relationship does more than make you happy. It also helps you stay healthy. This is particularly true for men. Men in long term relationships typically earn more, are happier, are less stressed, and have fewer health issues than their single counterparts. To learn more about this research (and how to have a happy relationship), I highly recommend reading The Man’s Guide To Women.
Healthy Relationship Quiz
This article should give you a good idea about some of the components of a healthy relationship but there is so much more that we did not cover in this blog. That’s why I created this Healthy Relationship Quiz to help you determine once and for all if you are in a healthy relationship.
I know it can be scary to take an honest look at your relationship to see whether it is healthy or not, but if you read all the way to the end of this article, I believe you have what it takes to face this head on. Whatever your situation, if you’d like to talk more about your relationship, contact me. I’m here to help!
Luckily, we’re not. Psychologists have been asking themselves these same questions for years and have actually come up with some pretty reliable answers on how to fix communication issues in relationships.
If you’ve been reading my blog posts, you probably know by now that I’m a huge fan of Drs. John and Julie Gottman, expert therapists and researchers in the area of couples counseling.
In my work with clients, I use many of the techniques that the Gottmans introduced – the Gottman Method for couples therapy – because they have been backed by research and I find that they are extremely effective at helping couples overcome relationship problems.
For decades, the Gottmans have been studying couples and what makes them tick. One of the biggest discoveries that came through their research was the theory of the Gottman Method “Four Horsemen,” which are four behaviors that accurately serve as predictors of divorce.
The idea is that if we can avoid or minimize these four behaviors, then we can solve communication issues in relationships and our relationships stand a fighting chance. However, if the Gottman Method Four Horsemen are present and you do nothing to change it, you’re in for a really unhappy relationship or a breakup.
These four behaviors are:
Defensiveness (not taking responsibility)
Stonewalling (Emotionally Shutting down)
As we’ll explore throughout the rest of this guide, all four of these behaviors really stem from communication issues in relationships. The reason these behaviors are SO detrimental to your relationship is that they cause fights to escalate to a point where things get nasty and out of control.
If these behaviors show up in your fights, you probably say and do things you regret and you have a really hard time resolving your arguments. You fight and fight until you are both exhausted and frustrated beyond caring anymore. Eventually, you both get sick of fighting and make up but without ever having a productive and civil conversation about the topic. Once you are getting along again, no one wants to rock the boat by trying to talk things through because you are both terrified of getting right back into another draining fight.
This lack of communication in a relationship is not healthy conflict management and over time, fighting like this will deteriorate your relationship to the point where you completely lose respect for each other. When you get to this point, the odds are really not in your favor.
In fact, Dr. Gottman can predict with over 90% accuracy if a couple will divorce, largely based on whether or not these 4 behaviors are present. It’s THAT serious.
In this article, we will look at what each behavior is, what it might look like in your relationship, and what you can do to stop it from ruining your relationship. Ready to learn more about how to fix communication in a relationship?
Start by taking our quiz to find out if these 4 behaviors are present in your relationship, and then keeping reading to learn more about each behavior – and how they impact communication issues in relationships
The 4 Behaviors That Lead to Communication Issues in Relationships
The 1st Horseman – Stonewalling: How to Stop Shutting Down Emotionally in a Relationship
The first of the Gottman Method “Four Horsemen” is called Stonewalling. Stonewalling is the label that the Gottmans gave to the action of shutting down, one of the most common communication issues in relationships. If you have a partner who shuts down emotionally, you know what this looks like. A stonewalling partner is usually expressionless in their face, has a monotonous tone, and usually uses short one-word answers, if any at all. Stonewalling is more typical in males but it’s definitely not just males who are capable of shutting down.
Why Do Guys Shut Down Emotionally?
Anyone who has a low threshold for dealing with emotions or a history of trauma from past relationships (in childhood or as an adult) is likely to stonewall. Often, men are less fluent in emotions than women because women are socialized to talk about their feelings whereas men are not.
In typical American culture (and this holds true for most cultures I know of), men are taught to be stoic and strong. They are told things like “big boys don’t cry” growing up as kids and these words have an impact. If we go even further back to caveman times, men were hunters and women were gatherers and also raised the children. In order to be able to hunt and kill, men could not be sentimental. And women could not be completely shut down emotionally and be successful in keeping their families and the tribe together and connected.
Thus, there are many reasons why men might have a harder time with strong emotions than women and why they are more likely to stonewall. Having said that, it’s still very common for women to engage in this behavior too.
Most of the time, when one partner shuts down, it causes the other partner to try even harder to get answers and only exacerbates communication issues in relationships.
At first, the partner being shut out might criticize and yell. If that doesn’t work, they may beg and plead and if that doesn’t work, they may even escalate to throwing or breaking things. The partner who feels like they’re being left in the cold will often relentlessly try to engage their significant other, to no avail. This cycle is extremely common and unbelievably frustrating for everyone involved. In the end, both partners are in a state of panic, although, this panic looks completely different for each person.
What is really happening inside when someone is shutting down emotionally?
Believe it or not, research has shown that the partner who is shutting down is actually very physically alert, even though they don’t look like it. His heart rate is likely over 100 BMP and he is feeling what we therapists call “flooded.” Being flooded happens when your body and mind are overwhelmed due to strong emotions. When you are flooded, your heart rate increases, you might feel very tense, you might feel hot or sweat, you could start shaking, your access to rational thought is limited, it’s hard to control your emotions, and you may even lose your peripheral vision and start seeing tunnel vision. It’s definitely not a state that helps alleviate communication issues in relationships!
This all happens because your body is going into fight or flight mode. It’s reacting as if there is real physical danger in front of you and it is getting ready to fight, run or freeze. At that point, having an effective and rational conversation is NOT in the cards. Human survival instinct is kicking in and conscious, rational thought has left the building. Furthermore, your hippocampus doesn’t function well when you are flooded and it is the part of your brain involved with memory. This is why you and your partner can have completely different recollections of what was said or done in a fight and you both feel right. In reality, if you were both flooded, neither of you really knows what happened. Your brain was only half there and it just fills in the gaps with what it thinks probably happened based on your beliefs or past experiences.
The Solution to Stonewalling Communication Issues in Relationships
When you and your partner are in this situation and struggling with communication problems in marriage, you each need different things. He needs space, and you need a connection. Unfortunately, there is no way for you to receive the connection that you need until he has his space.
While this might seem like an impossible standoff, there is a way to solve this problem.
Give your partner the space that he needs. Be willing to take a break, and take a step back. Agree on a time-limit for this break, so that you both know when and where you will come back together to talk about the situation. When the break is over, it’s the responsibility of the partner that requested the break to re-initiate conversation. This way, the partner who wants to talk ASAP will not feel the other is using the break as a way to avoid the conversation altogether.
While you and your partner can decide what time limit feels right for you, many couples use 20 minutes as their guideline. After 20 minutes of some kind of self-soothing activity (breathing, walking, bathing, meditation), come back together with calm hearts and eased minds. Then you can use some of my healthy communication techniques for relationships to guide your discussion.
Above all, remember that when your partner is emotionally unavailable, it isn’t about you. He is simply trying to feel safe in the only way he knows how. It may feel like you have no communication in a relationship, but he is not trying to be difficult. In fact, he is trying to make things better by avoiding talking so he doesn’t say something that makes you feel even worse. Remembering this can sometimes help you pull back when he needs it most.
Do you handle conflict in a healthy way? Take our quiz to find out.
The 2nd Horseman: Criticism In Relationships
The second of the Gottman Method “Four Horsemen” is criticism. Criticism occurs when one partner verbally attacks the other and can be one of the most hurtful communication issues in relationships. This is different from voicing a complaint or offering a critique, both of which are perfectly appropriate, and center around specific issues. Criticism, on the other hand, is when you make a blanket statement about your partner’s personality or entire being.
Examples of Criticism in Relationships
Criticism sounds harsh, like something you would never want to hear your spouse saying to you. Someone with a critical partner might often say “I get blamed for everything in my relationship.” However, someone highly defensive may also say that so if you’re feeling blamed a lot, it might be that your partner is critical or it might be that you are overly defensive. Or it might be both – but more on that later!
Criticism might sound something like:
“You never listen to me! You are a horrible husband! How can you be so selfish?!”
“ You never do anything that I ask you to. You are so lazy!”
“ You only care about going out with your friends. You leave me to do everything with the kids!”
How to Fix Communication Issues in a Relationship and Stop the Blame Game
It should come as no surprise that criticism doesn’t lead you anywhere except down the blame trail – not a great way to avoid relationship problems!. It also leads to defensive behavior in relationships. Still, what else can you do when you need to share a complaint with your spouse?
The Gottmans believe that the antidote (or cure) for criticism is called “The Gentle Startup.” Let me show you what this looks like. The skeleton for this communication tool appears like this:
I feel ________about___________. I appreciate ________ and need or request __________.
Okay, now, let’s fill in the blanks. Say, for example, you have been feeling insecure because your spouse has been spending a great deal of time with his female co-worker, and you are starting to worry that he may have feelings for her. If you were to use criticism, you might say something like:
“All you want to do is be with Kerry. You never come home on time anymore. You don’t even care how this makes me feel. You are so selfish. Why don’t you just go ahead and leave me for her, since you’re probably planning to anyway!”
After a statement like that, a huge argument would probably begin. So, let’s try Gottman’s gentle startup method, and see how that would sound.
Use I Statements to Avoid Getting Angry and Improve Communication Issues in Relationships
What’s an I statement? An I statement is a sentence that you start with the word “I,” and it focuses on how you feel instead of what you don’t like about the other person.
In this example, if you were using the softened startup formula, you might say, “I feel insecure about your relationship with Kerry.”
Here you used an I statement to describe your feelings, which helps solve communication issues in relationships because you aren’t placing the blame on your partner. In addition, you are describing the situation in neutral terms, without adding your own opinions into the mix, (i.e. you didn’t say: “I feel insecure about your scandalous relationship with Kerry). As you can see, one extra word can really make a difference.
Hint* – I feel statements need to include how you feel about the situation, not about what your partner is doing. Saying something like: “I feel that you are selfish,” or “I feel like you are being sketchy” are not effective I statements, even though technically they start with an I. If you find yourself adding “that” or “like” after the words “I feel,” you are no longer describing a feeling. You are now getting into a thought or interpretation. An appropriate I statement feels vulnerable and might be a little scary to share at first, but I promise it will get you farther than if you were to play the blame game.
Find Something That You Appreciate About Your Spouse
Once you’ve got the I statement down, it’s time to find something that you appreciate about your spouse. This is one of the best ways to figure out how to communicate better with your partner.
For example, you might say, “I appreciate how hard you’ve been working in order to support our family.” This lets your partner know that you see the value of his work and that you appreciate what he is doing to provide for you. As the saying goes, “People who feel appreciated, will always do more than what’s expected of them.” Not to mention, your partner is going to be a lot more receptive to your proposed solution if you butter them up with a warm compliment first.
Be Clear About What You Need or Want for Faster Resolution of Communication Issues in Relationships
The last piece of the “Gentle Startup” involves making a clear and direct request. Something like: “It would help me if you could limit your communication with Kerry to work discussions only and call or text me at least once during the day, just so I know that you are thinking of me.”
This is a clear request, which focuses on what you want to see happen, rather than what you don’t want.
Interesting tidbit – It’s always better to put requests in the positive form (e.g. please speak to me more quietly and calmly), instead of telling someone what you don’t want them to do (e.g. please don’t yell at me). This is because our brains can sometimes leave out the “don’t,” and only focus on the other parts of the sentence.
Putting It All Together: How to Avoid Arguments
Okay, now let’s put our whole new sentence using Gottman’s “Gentle Startup” approach together:
“I feel insecure about your relationship with Kerry. I appreciate how hard you’ve been working in order to support our family. It would help me if you could limit your communication with Kerry to work discussions only and call or text me at least once during the day, just so I know that you are thinking of me.”
Doesn’t that sound better than the critical version? I think so, and I can guarantee that it will lead to a better conversation.
How to Respond to Criticism in Relationships & Fix Communication Issues in Relationships
Now let’s say that you are the one being criticized in your relationship. How can you respond to that in a way that will get you the peace that you crave?
The first thing that you want to do is actually listen to the criticism that you are being served, and then ask yourself the following questions:
Does this criticism make sense to me?
Is this about me, or is it a projection that has more to do with my spouse than me?
If it’s true, is it something that I want to change?
If it is not true, how might I have contributed to the way my partner feels right now?
Once you figure out whether the criticism is actually helpful for you, you can decide how to respond.
If the criticism doesn’t seem to fit for you, you can ask your partner what contributed to them feeling this way. Listen respectfully and validate their feelings by saying something like “given what you just shared, it makes sense why you feel that way. However, I want to share a different perspective with you.” Next, share with your partner why you think it doesn’t fit. If, on the other hand, all, or part, of what was said is helpful, then you can thank your spouse and say that you will work on whatever he or she brought up.
Of course, if the criticism is being delivered to you in a mean, rude, or hurtful way, you have every right to let your spouse know that this is not okay. You don’t have to put up with being put down! If this is the case, you might want to say something like:
“I want to listen to your feedback, but your tone and the words that you are using are making it hard for me. Could you please tell me what you have to say in a more peaceful way?”
Whatever you decide to do, if your goal is to fix communication issues in relationships, it’s best to remain calm while you do it. Even though hearing criticism about yourself can be quite triggering, you will only make matters worse if you get all your hairs in a tangle over it.
The 3rd Horseman: Defensive Behavior In Relationships
The third of the Gottman Method “Four Horsemen” is defensiveness. Defensiveness is the act of defending yourself against a real or perceived attack, and it’s actually a natural reaction when we are feeling backed into a corner. As a result, it’s another one of the most common communication issues in relationships.
Most animals in nature defend themselves, and humans are no different. In fact, back when we were hunting and gathering, it was necessary to defend ourselves from anything that might kill us. Being on guard and defensive is what kept us alive so it is deeply ingrained in us as humans. Having said that, if you want a conscious relationship, you have to learn how to override instinct and unconscious reactions and make different, less combative choices.
Defensive Communication Issues in Relationships
Defensive behavior in relationships shows up 1 of 4 ways from what I have seen.
The first is complete denial which sounds something like “I did not do that!” You might even throw in a counter attack and say “YOU are the one who did that!” if you are feeling particularly defensive.
The second is saying something like “Yeah, I did that but you do it all the time so who are you to criticize me for it?”
The third is saying something like “ok, I did do that but you did something way worse last week so you have no right to talk!”
The fourth is blaming your partner for what you did. For example, “It’s your fault I had to yell. You weren’t listening.”
Why Do People Get Defensive in Relationships?
Aside from being wired to protect ourselves from what we think is dangerous, there are many other reasons that defensiveness is one of the most common communication issues in relationships.
For example, if you were shamed, criticized, or punished harshly as a child, you will likely have a stronger reaction to criticism as an adult. Children who grew up being shamed were taught that love is conditional. They received love when they were good but they were shamed and often shut out when they were bad. Shaming means they were made to feel that THEY were bad rather than their behavior. As adults, these individuals tend to take negative feedback from anyone as an insult to their character and a threat to the relationship so they have a lower tolerance for it. They want to protect themselves from feeling the hurt and rejection they felt as a child, and will use a variety of techniques to stop their significant other from saying that they did anything wrong, even if they know they did. This behavior is often associated with a victim mentality in relationships.
Another reason that you might react defensively to criticism is if you have low self-esteem. If you don’t feel good about yourself as is, it’s really hard to tolerate someone telling you something negative about your behavior without making it mean more than it’s intended to. People with low self-esteem often interpret feedback to mean that they are unworthy or unlovable and it sends them into a shame spiral. On the other hand, if you feel pretty good about yourself in general, it’s easier to take feedback in and really consider it without going into a shame spiral. Read this to learn how to love yourself more.
Defensiveness in Relationships
Earlier, I was saying that defensiveness is natural in the animal kingdom. When you’re exploring how to communicate better with your spouse, however, defensiveness doesn’t do us any favors. So, it would benefit us to remember that our partners are not trying to kill us. Instead, we need to recognize they are trying to express themselves and we need to give them the chance to do so.
Let me give you an example of what a defensive reaction to a comment might be:
You: No it isn’t! I don’t even snore! You must be waking yourself up with your own snoring! You should really get that checked.
Do you see what happened there? Not only did “you” (quotes because the real YOU would NEVER), not accept what your partner was saying, but you went and turned it back around on him. Clearly, this approach is not going to go well in the long run.
Still, it can be hard to listen to feedback from your significant other, especially when you feel like you are being criticized or blamed for everything in the relationship.
I get it. You don’t want to see yourself as a snorer. Who does? Going a little deeper, you might even fear that your partner could leave you because of it, so your immediate reaction is to DENY, DENY, DENY. (We will talk more about denial in a little bit).
How to Be Less Defensive In a Relationship and Fix Communication Issues in Relationships
So, what is the antidote for defensiveness? You aren’t going to like it, but just like a medicine that doesn’t taste good, it’s good for you. It’s called taking responsibility.
Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that you take responsibility for 100% of everything that your partner throws at you. However, if your partner came to you with genuine concern, then it’s up to you to make him or her feel heard. There is always, always, ALWAYS something you can take responsibility for.
Even if you did not intend to hurt your partner’s feelings, you can still apologize for the fact that you did hurt them by saying something like “I had no idea my behavior was going to impact you in this way. I’m really sorry I hurt your feelings.” This is NOT to be confused with the terrible apology “I’m sorry your feelings are hurt” or “I’m sorry you’re upset” which essentially just insinuates that it’s your partner’s fault their feelings are hurt.
Okay, now let’s imagine an example of a response where you took responsibility for what your partner was saying in the snoring example:
Your partner: Your snoring is keeping me up at night.
You: Okay, I didn’t realize that I was snoring. Let’s figure out what we can do to help you sleep better.
Unlike the defensive response, this one opens up the lines of communication between you and your partner, allowing the two of you to move on to problem-solving, instead of being stuck in a stand-off. Doing this will help you realize that you are not at war with each other, you are together against a common enemy: snoring! (Or whatever the fight might be that day).
In the example above, you were able to come at your spouse with a gentler, softer tone which helped you get better results. Sometimes, though, you or your partner might not even realize that you are being defensive, because one, or both of you might be using defense mechanisms. Practicing this kind of response regularly can go a long way toward fixing all kinds of communication issues in relationships.
Defense Mechanisms in Relationships
The idea of defense mechanisms is almost as old as psychology itself, dating back to Sigmund Freud. Defense mechanisms are strategies that our unconscious mind comes up with to help us deal with thoughts or feelings that we just cannot accept as our own.
While there are many types of defense mechanisms that we might use with ourselves (yes, we even hide our thoughts from ourselves sometimes), there are a few that we use most often in relationships. These strategies include:
Projection: Projection occurs when you place your own thoughts, feelings, or emotions onto another person. You do this because you can’t accept how you really feel, or what you really think.
Example: You accuse your spouse of wanting to cheat on you because you actually want to cheat on him. Or you accuse your partner of being angry when YOU are actually angry.
Denial or Repression: Denial/repression happens when you simply block facts or events from your mind.
Example: When your partner asks why you spent $600 at Target, you say that you didn’t do that. You aren’t lying on purpose, your mind actually made you believe that you didn’t spend the money.
Rationalization: Rationalization involves changing the facts to make a situation less threatening.
Example: In the Target example above, instead of outright denying that you spent the money, you might come up with an excuse, like: “They were having the biggest sale of the year, so if you think about it, I actually saved us money!”
Reaction Formation: Reaction Formation occurs when you do the opposite of what you really feel.
Example: You are pissed at your husband but you clean the entire house and make his favorite dinner.
Remember, all of these behaviors are done subconsciously, in the part of your brain where you aren’t fully aware of what you are doing. Realizing what you are doing and bringing it out into the light, is the first step to healing from these behaviors and fixing communication issues in relationships.
Do you handle conflict in a healthy way? Take our quiz to find out.
The 4th Horseman: CONTEMPT
The fourth of the Gottman Method “Four Horsemen” is contempt and it is the most damaging of the bunch. Contempt is the most accurate of the predictors of divorce because it conveys a complete lack of respect for your partner and it completely erodes the fondness and admiration between the two of you. If contempt is one of your communication issues in relationships, read this next section carefully.
What is Contempt?
The Gottmans describe contempt as:
Being mean to your partner
Treating your partner with disrespect
Rolling your eyes at your partner
Making fun of your partner
Making your partner feel worthless, stupid, or belittled in some way
Acting as if you are superior, and your partner is inferior
Putting your partner down in public (or at all really but it’s especially embarrassing in public)
What Leads to Being Mean In Relationships?
According to the Gottmans, contempt stems from long-standing negative thoughts about your partner that haven’t been expressed. These thoughts then boil over into resentments and come out in a very snobby, and often sarcastic, way. Interestingly, the Gottmans found that couples who act with contempt toward one another are more likely to get colds and illnesses because their immune systems are weaker. It’s literally a toxic behavior!
An Example of Contempt
Alright, you know I like examples, so here is an example of a wife responding to her husband’s statement with contempt:
Husband: I’ve always wanted to learn to play the guitar.
Wife: Oh, really? Could you be any more useless? Why can’t you focus on something real, like making more money? How will you playing the guitar help us? You probably can’t even keep a tune!
The above are signs you could be in an emotionally abusive relationship.
What to Do When Your Partner Keeps Putting You Down and Name Calling You
Most people don’t really know how damaging name calling in a relationship is.
According to Gottman Method couples therapy, the antidote, or cure for contempt is to “build a culture of fondness and admiration.”
Okay, but how do we do that?
First, let me just say that if there are many interactions like the one above, occurring in your relationship, it’s probably time to reach out to a couples therapist for help. Things are too far gone in your relationship and you need a professional to help you make a change ASAP.
However, if things are still relatively okay between the two of you, the Gottmans suggest focusing on the positive. One way to do this and begin improving communication issues in relationships is by keeping a gratitude journal and writing down 1 thing you love and appreciate about your partner daily. Bonus points if you share it with them!
Another way to do this is by looking into the history of your relationship to try and remember what you liked about each other in the first place as a way to rebuild that fondness and admiration. Here is a list of questions formulated by the Gottmans, that could help you remember:
The History of Your Relationship:
Discuss how the two of you met and got together. Was there anything about your partner that made them stand out? What were your first impressions of each other?
What do you remember most about your first date and the period of your new relationship? What stands out? How long did you know each other before you got married? What do you remember of this period? What were some of the highlights? What types of things did you do together?
Talk about how you decided to get married. Who proposed and in what manner? Was it a difficult decision? Were you in love? Talk about this time.
How well do you remember your wedding? Talk to each other about your memories. Did you have a honeymoon? What was your favorite part of the wedding or honeymoon?
Do you remember your first year of marriage? Were there any adjustments you needed to make as a couple?
What about the transition to parenthood? What was this period of your marriage like for the two of you?
Looking back over the years, what moments stand out as the happiest period in your relationship? When was a good time for you as a couple? Has this changed over the years?
Many relationships go through periods of ups and downs. Would you say this is true of your relationship? Can you describe some of these low and high points?
Looking back over the years, what moments stand out as really hard times in your relationship? How did you get through these rough periods? Why do you think you stayed together?
Have you stopped doing things together that once gave you pleasure? Explore this idea together and discuss why you stopped.
Okay, now that you remember what you love about each other let’s try talking about guitar lessons again:
Husband: I’ve always wanted to learn to play the guitar.
Wife: That sounds fun. I love how you always want to try new things. Maybe you can serenade me after a few lessons.
Ahhhh, now that sounds like a conversation built out of admiration!
If you can change your responses from ones of contempt to ones of respect and admiration, I guarantee that your relationship will bloom.
Do you handle conflict in a healthy way? Take our quiz to find out.
Ready to Fix Communication Issues in Relationships?
So there you have it, the four behaviors that you really want to try and avoid in your relationship because they are predictors of divorce or breakup, are Stonewalling, Criticism, Defensiveness, and Contempt. These are also common roots of communication issues in relationships.
For each of these areas, I’ve explained the essentials: what they are, what they look like in relationships, how to avoid them, and what you can do instead. Of course, we aren’t perfect and glimpses of these unwanted behaviors are bound to show up from time to time. The point is to try and avoid falling back on these behaviors as your normal way of being.
If you’ve made it all the way to the end of this article, chances are you really care about improving your relationship and learning how to be a better communicator in a relationship. That’s a great sign!
Remember, relationships are full of ups and downs and they take a lot of work to help them run smoothly. The good news is that the work that you do is never wasted. Even the most difficult relationships are teaching us valuable lessons about who we really are.
If you recognized yourself or your partner in this article and would like to talk more about how we at Couples Learn can help you improve your relationship with online couples therapy, book a free 30-minute consultation with one of our therapists. We are all experts in love and relationships and are here to help you learn how to communicate better with your spouse or partner!
If you are in a long-term relationship, chances are, you’ve said some things you wish you could take back. We all have. In the heat of an argument, it can be extremely difficult to hold back, especially if your partner really knows how to push your buttons. However, no matter how heated things get, the absolute worst things to say to your partner are these five forbidden phrases.
1. I Hate You
Hate is a very strong word, and by telling your partner that you hate him, you are saying that you hate his whole being, not just something that he did. I don’t know if anyone has ever told you that he or she hates you, but, trust me, it’s not something that is easily forgotten. You can hate war, poverty, or childhood illnesses, but, it’s just not a word that should be used on your partner.
2. You Never…
If you tell your partner that she never listens to you, you are probably taking one instance and generalizing her behavior from there. This kind of generalization feels very unfair, and, again, focuses on your partner as a person, rather than something that she did. In my work with couples, I find that people rarely do the same things ALL the time, so telling your partner that she NEVER does something is probably just not true. Try to stick to the moment at hand rather than bringing up every past transgression.
3. You Always…
Similar to “you never,” “you always” is another generalizing term. If you tell your significant other that he always makes a fool of himself in public, he is likely to get defensive and try to find examples of times that he acted like a perfect gentleman. Since he’ll be so busy pointing out times when this wasn’t a fool, he’ll probably miss the point of what you are trying to tell him, while needlessly angering the two of you in the meantime.
4.I Don’t Need You
This is a particularly hurtful statement to make to your partner because we all want to feel needed by the ones that we love. Telling your significant other that you don’t need her could even trigger feelings of abandonment because we often fear that if we are no longer needed, we will be left, or replaced with someone new.
5.You Are Worthless
Of course, any insult, like stupid, ridiculous, or weak could be hurtful, but, worthless, in my opinion, is one of the worst insults that you can hurl at your SO. This is because calling someone worthless not only puts down who they are as a person but it also calls into question their whole purpose in life. You don’t want to crush your partner’s soul, do you?
Okay, maybe if you are angry, you might be down for a little soul-crushing, but, deep down, (like, way deep), I know that’s not what you really want!
If you’d like to talk more about what to avoid saying to your partner, and what to say instead, contact me. I am here to help.
Despite the ever prevalent number of cheaters in mainstream movies and television, researchers have found that the real threat of an affair over the course of a relationship is about 25%. That’s approximately 1 out of every 4 couples, which isn’t great, but it also isn’t as common as it seems when you’re addicted to shows like “Scandal.” (side note: I can’t believe Scandal is over forever!)
Still, all the statistics in the world won’t help you if your union is the one being affected by an affair. First, you have to decide whether or not you feel that the relationship is even worth saving. For some, an affair is a “cry for help,” where one partner essentially leaves the relationship by seeking the affection of a stranger. If the relationship was hopelessly flawed to begin with, there may not be much left to save.
Similarly, if a person has cheated more than once, you may want to strongly consider cutting your losses and moving on. As the saying goes, “Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair,” which means that multiple offenses are very difficult to undo. If your partner is cheating on you repeatedly, you may also want to seek assessment for sex addiction to see if this is the underlying cause.
However, let’s say that your partner cheated on you once, claims it was a huge mistake and you both want to work to improve the relationship and rebuild trust. What can you do then?
The first step to take after the discovery of an affair is to allow the person who was cheated on, (the betrayed partner), a chance to say everything that he or she is thinking and feeling. The betrayed partner needs free reign to go through all the necessary emotions of grief, anger, sadness, resentment, etc., and to be heard. New research is showing that being cheated on results in symptoms similar to PTSD, a mental illness that can occur after a major life-threatening trauma. The betrayer needs to be understanding of the emotional turmoil caused by his/her behaviors and “bear witness” to his partner’s pain without rushing her through it. One way to begin the process of rebuilding trust is for the betrayer to write an apology letter declaring his intentions to change his ways.
Avoid Cheap Forgiveness
Dr. Spring calls “Cheap Forgiveness,” the process by which the betrayed forgives the cheater too quickly, without going through all of the pain, anger, and sadness that comes with infidelity. Dr. Spring believes that some people rush themselves through to the acceptance phase of grief because they fear losing their partner. However, if you do this, you won’t fully heal from the incident and it’s likely to cause harm to your relationship in the future.
Here is one of the steps where it’s easy to tell how serious the cheater is about rebuilding trust. Dr. Spring recommends setting ground rules for allowing the betrayed to have access to the cheater’s private life. For example, she may request all of his social media passwords or request that he show her what he is doing on his phone when she asks. Yes, this may feel like an invasion of privacy to the cheater, but, it is necessary to be completely transparent to start rebuilding the trust that was broken. A cheater who really wants to change his ways will most likely be open to these invasions of privacy, whereas one who wants to continue playing the field might balk at these new restrictions. Hint: If he balks, it’s time to walk. Either he is still lying or he is not willing to do what it takes to rebuild trust.
Finally, Dr. Spring suggests that after some time, the betrayed should be feeling more comfortable to loosen the reigns on the rules mentioned above. With time and healing, she should be able to start trusting her partner again.
Recovering from an affair requires hard work, vulnerability and emotional risk-taking on the part of both partners. Emotionally charged conversations, tears, mood swings, and a reluctance to trust the betrayer are common reactions in the betrayed. Given the heavy emotions that infidelity causes, it’s often helpful for both individuals and the couple to be in therapy to facilitate the healing process.
“A wonderful, life-changing gift may not be wrapped as you expect. – When you don’t get what you want, sometimes it’s necessary preparation, and other times its necessary protection. But the time is never wasted. It’s a step on your journey. Someday you’re going look back on this time in your life as an important time of grieving and growing. You will see that you were in mourning and your heart was breaking, but your life was changing for the greater good.”
So, whether this experience helps you grow stronger as a couple and improve your relationship, or whether you break up, trust that you are on the right path and everything is happening for your highest and best good. And know that I am here to help you through this or any other hard times.