The 4 most damaging communication styles (and how to fix them!)

If clear communication is key for a successful relationship, then damaging communication styles are a sign that things are not going as well as they could be. In a previous post on 5 ways to fight fair in a relationship, it was highlighted that arguing is not in itself a sign of potential marital disaster. In fact, most healthy and successful relationships involve regular conflict. But the way in which people fight says a lot more about the future of that couple.

Relationship researcher and expert John Gottman Ph.D. of the Gottman Institute has discovered the four most damaging communication techniques in couples. He labels them the “4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. While this joyful name may read doom and gloom, it is worth noting that healthy couples don’t manage to avoid these all the time. Instead, they limit the use of them, and are able to repair when they use them.

So, let’s discuss the 4 most damaging communication styles, and how you can reduce them or repair after using them:

  1. Criticism.

    “What?” I hear you say. “I can’t complain about my husband? I’m out” Now then, hear me out. There is a major difference between complaining and criticising. Complaining is expressing your dissatisfaction in something. Criticising is expressing your dissatisfaction in someone and their character. Complaining is actually a healthy part of any relationship, and helps you to express your annoyances, distress, anger, sadness. This is a way to share your emotions with your partner, and to air out grievances rather than letting them simmer away. Criticism however, takes this a step further to attack your partner personally. They often make comments about someone’s character or make unfair generalisations about a situation.

    Complaint: “I get so frustrated that you forget to take out the bins”

    Criticism “Why do you ALWAYS forget to take out the bins, you must be either lazy or just enjoy making me annoyed”

    How to fix it: Next time you are annoyed or angry about something your partner has done, try to reframe it by starting with an “I” statement. Avoid using generalisations such as “always” and “never”, and reduce your use of name-calling such as “lazy”.

  2. Contempt. 

    Contempt often follows criticism, and is when the intention is to insult and psychologically abuse your partner. With either words or body language, you communicate the message that you are ‘above’ or ‘better’ then them. You communicate that their actions or sense of self are stupid/incompetent/below you. Contempt can be subtle, but it is the most damaging of the styles as it often leads to resentment and reduced affectionate feelings between couples. It looks like mockery, shaming, eye rolling, cruel tones, name calling, insulting, sneering.

    Contempt: “Oh shut up. You are such an idiot, I don’t even know what I see in you sometimes.”

    How to fix it: Stop using arguments to attack your partner personally. If you have an issue with the way they do something, have a discussion about the exact complaint rather than what you think about them.

  3. Defensiveness.

    Defensiveness often kicks in when one or more parties feel criticised and attacked (see both above points!). Their natural response is to defend themselves by playing the victim or ‘innocent’ one. This can be so damaging because people feel like they are justified in only their feelings. They then become stubborn in maintaining their innocent status.This can look like: ignoring the problem, repeating themselves, responding with an immediate complaint of their own.

    Defensiveness: “I have no idea what you are talking about, this is not my fault. It’s not my fault I had a bad day at work and just want to relax. You want to talk annoying? How about when you….”

    How to fix it: Empathy. When you feel your bristles going up and having the thought of how ‘unfair’ the situation is, try to feel where the other person is coming from.

  4. Stonewalling.

    Stonewalling, often the last response when people are overwhelmed and exhausted with fighting, is when people just ‘check out’. Silent treatments, blank stares, headphones on. It can become incredibly frustrating for the other party, and makes it hard for a couple to repair after the argument. Stonewalling tends to convey smugness, distance and a sense of not caring. Gottman showed that the majority of men don’t get physiologically upset when their wives stonewall them, but the opposite happens for women. Meaning that women are greatly affected when their partner stonewalls, which can escalate fighting further.

    How to fix it: When you are feeling overwhelmed and angry, chose to take a break and calm down rather than stonewall. Try to use non-defensive thinking (empathy!), take a deep breath and respond rather than ignore.


*Disclaimer: This advice is for the majority of functioning couples without physical or emotional abuse. If you are in a domestically violent relationship, you can seek help by contacting Lifeline or 1800Respect.


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    1. Jess

      It can be pretty terrible to be around that type of couple, you can feel the dislike in the air.

    1. Jess

      Oh good! Yup, can’t have a problem without a solution.

  1. I’ve been slightly guilty of stonewalling. Well, not so much stonewalling as reverting to my shell because I intensely dislike conflict and confrontations. But I’m getting better with this. Interesting post.

    1. Jess

      Yes, me too. For people who really don’t like arguing it is so easy to just put the walls up and ignore the problem. But in the long run, you don’t really deal with the issue.

    1. Jess

      Yes I find it a difficult line to balance sometimes, being able to discuss complaints without edging into ‘nagging’ and criticising the other person.

  2. I was only talking about this with my psych last week. She said that as a relationship psychologist her alarm bells go off when a couple tells her that they don’t fight because it’s usually because of a power imbalance. I think how quickly you can move past an argument is important too. I used to use most of these damaging communication styles but with a lot of therapy I have improved ten fold.

    1. Jess

      Thats a really good point, fighting is normal and can be so healthy to air out grievances! But definitely the grudge-holding and resentment can build up contempt and problems. Good on you for working on your communication styles, most people struggle!

  3. Over the years, I have had a number of women friends where I am shocked at the way they speak to their partner – with complete contempt. Not surprisingly, many have ended up with broken marriages. That’s not to say that men don’t do it too – I’m sure they do – but I’ve noticed more with women as they are friends.

    1. Jess

      Yes I think women are typically more likely to speak that way, often because it that dynamic the man uses stonewalling to attempt to ignore it. Such a vicious cycle they get stuck in.

  4. Mommy Muddling

    One of my greatest flaws is a tendency to lean towards defensiveness. These are such important behaviors to be aware of if we want healthy relationships!

    1. Jess

      Oh it is so easy to go straight to defensiveness! But you are right, important to be aware of this. And great that you found this through Living for Naptime!

  5. Mel Roworth

    My husband often puts up the defensive and I’m guilty of the stonewall. Eventually, we end up talking it out. He’s the calmer one, so it’s usually me who needs to get a grip.
    Good to know that these are “normal” behaviors.

    1. Jess

      Totally normal behaviours, and the main thing is that you talk it out!

  6. Jaci Byrne

    Thanks for this reminder, Jess. I’m stonewalling guilty… I use it to disguise my hurt, but of course, it’s totally ineffective… I just hate it when someone asks ”why are you so angry?” when I’m hurt and go quiet and all I want is to be left alone to work it out.

  7. Shawn

    I would say it’s  communication, is the biggest problem. If you’re not getting the love, passion, intimacy or depth of connection that you want–the biggest reason is because of the words you use and how you use them. When you communicate with your partner, spouse or lover.

    Saying the wrong words in the wrong way or time, would be a relationship disaster.

    Using the right words in the right way and time, it’s almost like saying  a magic spell, because what you get is “magic.”

    That’s why we call these words “magic” because when you use them they can work like “magic” to open both you and your partner’s hearts, create more love, more connection, more intimacy and more of whatever you want in your relationship.

    These words can make the difference between whether you feel loved, cared for and connected or you feel alone, separated, distant and disconnected from your partner, mate, spouse, and lover.

    Here is something that helped me, maybe it would do the same for you

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