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:
“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”.
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.
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.
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.