The 4-Step Guide to Identifying and Fixing Bad Communication Issues In Your Relationship
Ah, relationships. Those mysterious joinings of two people who may or may not be from different planets. How can we ever make relationships work when each person brings a unique worldview, colored by their own experiences into the mix? Luckily, psychologists have been asking themselves these questions for years and have actually come up with some pretty reliable answers!
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 because they have been backed by research and I find that they are extremely effective at helping couples get to where they want to be in their relationships.
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 Four Horsemen,” which are four behaviors that accurately predict divorce. The idea is that if we can avoid or minimize these four behaviors, then our relationships stand a fighting chance. However, if the 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)
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 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.
The 1st Horseman – Stonewalling: How to Stop Shutting Down Emotionally in a Relationship
STONEWALLING: SHUTTING DOWN EMOTIONALLY
The first of “The Four Horsemen” is called Stonewalling. Stonewalling is the label that the Gottman’s gave to the action of shutting down. If you have a husband who shuts down, you know what this looks like. An emotionally unavailable husband is usually expressionless in his 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 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 that men 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. At first, she might criticize and yell. If that doesn’t work, she may beg and plead and if that doesn’t work, she may even escalate to throwing or breaking things. The partner who feels like she is being left in the cold will often relentlessly try to engage her 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 alert, even though he doesn’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.
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 CHALLENGE: HOW TO DEAL WITH AN EMOTIONALLY UNAVAILABLE HUSBAND
When you and your partner are in this situation, 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.
THE SOLUTION: HOW TO STOP BEING EMOTIONALLY UNAVAILABLE
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 healing 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. 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.
The 2nd Horseman: Criticism In Relationships
The second of the Gottman’s “Four Horsemen” is criticism. Criticism occurs when one partner verbally attacks the other. 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 STOP THE BLAME GAME IN A RELATIONSHIP
It should come as no surprise that criticism doesn’t lead you anywhere except down the blame trail. 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 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 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 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 story or a thought. 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. 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
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 sing so loud). 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
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, 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’s “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. 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 IN RELATIONSHIPS
Defensive behavior in relationships shows up 1 of 3 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!”
These are important signs you are dealing with denial in relationships.
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 we might get defensive in relationships.
One of the biggest predictors of whether a person will react defensively to any form of criticism is how that person was treated when he or she was a child.
For example, if you were constantly shamed, criticized, or punished harshly as a child, you will likely have a stronger reaction to criticism as an adult. Because you want to protect yourself from feeling the hurt you felt as a child, you will use a variety of techniques to stop your significant other from saying that you did anything wrong, even if you 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, then the last thing that you want is someone telling you something else that you did wrong. On the other hand, if you feel pretty good about yourself in general, then it’s easier to let unwanted comments fall of your back like pesky little drops of water. Read this to learn how to love yourself more.
DEFENSIVENESS IN RELATIONSHIPS
Earlier, I was saying that defensiveness is natural in the animal kingdom. In marital relationships, 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:
Your Partner: Your snoring is keeping me up at night.
You: No it isn’t! I don’t even snore! You must be you 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
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.
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 minds come 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.
Denial: Denial 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 to having a conscious relationship.
The 4th Horseman: CONTEMPT
The fourth of the Gottman’s “Four Horsemen” is Contempt and it is the most damaging of the bunch. Contempt is the single-biggest predictor 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.
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
- Sarcastic Behavior
- Emotionally Abusive
- Name calling
- Making your partner feel worthless, stupid, or less than 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!
These are signed 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 it is name calling in a relationship.
According to the Gottmans, 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 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.
So there you have it, the four behaviors that you really want to try and avoid in your relationship because they are highly predictive of divorce or breakup are Stonewalling, Criticism, Defensiveness, and Contempt.
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 and that’s okay. 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. 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 our who we really are.
If you recognized yourself or your partner in this article and would like to talk more about how I can help you improve your relationship with online couples therapy, book a free 30-minute consultation. I’m here to help!