Patterns of communication that can lead any relationship to a dead end.
There are four negative conflict patterns found in relationships that if allowed to run rampant will be lethal to any relationship. These conflict patterns are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. John Gottman, a marriage and divorce researcher, studied hundreds of happy and unhappy couples. After many years of research he found that these patterns of communication are the leading causes of divorce. Unhappy couples had these horsemen in their relationship, while happy couples did not, or were able to repair quickly. Learning and understanding these patterns of criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling can help you understand your relationship better, and guide you to know where you can improve.
Criticism is very common in most marriages. However, if left unchecked it can lead to more deadly horsemen. A criticism expresses negative opinions about the other’s character or personality (Gottman & Silver, 2018). When starting off a conversation with a criticism, it sets the tone for the entire discussion. In fact, John Gottman found that how the discussion starts typically determines the outcome of the conversation with 96% accuracy (Panganiban, 2022). So in other words, if you start the conversation with criticism, then you will likely leave the conversation worse than before.
There are different types of criticism that can creep into a relationship. Sometimes criticism can look like exaggerated language such as; “you always” or “you never.” Other times it can show up as asking why questions for example; “why didn’t you do the dishes today?” On the surface this may not seem critical, however on the receiving end it can be interpreted as there is something wrong with them for not doing the dishes. Criticism can also look like making jokes about the other person’s flaws. This is a passive-aggressive way of communicating what you don’t like about your partner (Panganiban, 2022). This can be especially harmful when making a joke in front of others, because it can lead to embarrassment.
In every marriage there are some complaints between each spouse. However, a complaint and a criticism are very different. A complaint focuses on a very specific behavior such as, “I’m upset you didn’t clean the bathroom, like you said you would. Can you take care of it before tomorrow?” The focus is on the behavior of not cleaning the bathroom rather than on the spouse. Here is a formula to keep in mind to give a complaint: 1) express how you feel (I’m upset); 2) about a specific event or behavior (not cleaning the bathroom); 3) and this is what I want/need/prefer (can you do it before tomorrow) (Gottman & Silver, 2018). A compliment is a healthy way to use assertive communication to express feelings and suggest what is needed in that moment.
Complaint: I’m angry because I didn’t know you made plans tonight. Next time can you communicate with me better?
Criticism: Why didn’t you think to call me? You never communicate with me.
Complaint: I noticed the laundry still isn’t done. I’m frustrated because you told me you would do it yesterday. Can you start doing it now? I’ll help.
Criticism: You never follow through with chores around the house.
The second horsemen that Gottman describes is, contempt. This is when a partner has a sense of superiority over their spouse. Contempt shows up as eye rolling, sneering, cynicism, mockery, and hostile humor (Gottman & Silver 2018). Whichever form contempt shows up as, it is poisonous to any relationship, because it communicates disgust. When a partner is feeling as though their spouse is disguised with them it becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile. Gottman and Silver explains, “Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner” (2018).
There are two antidotes to contempt. First is to use complaints, like mentioned above. The other and more long term and powerful antidote is to foster a culture of fondness and admiration. This can be done by intentionally offering daily gestures of appreciation, love, kindness and support. Six-second kisses, a stress reducing conversation, and spending time verbalizing appreciation can also build fondness and admiration in a marriage (Gottman & Silver, 2018). As we build fondness in a relationship we remember that our spouse is worth being treated with respect and kindness.
Another harmful communication pattern that John Gottman warns couples against is defensiveness. When people get defensive in a relationship they are putting blame on their partner. In a way the person is saying, “you are the problem, not me.” Defensiveness can also take the form of the “innocent victim.” this can sound like, “why are you picking on me? Don’t you see all the good I do? I can never please you.” Using defensiveness will only escalate and fuel an argument. This occurs because when you start getting defensive your partner will often use more contempt and criticism (Gottman & Silver, 2018).
The antidote for defensiveness is to take responsibility for your part in the situation. We all play a role in conflict, even if a small one. Healthy people in relationships don’t use defensiveness in conflict. As you start to take responsibility you will begin to work as a team with your partner, instead of working against each other (Gottman & Silver, 2018). When bringing up a particular problem with your partner it may be helpful to answer these two questions to yourself; What is my goal? And, what is the real problem underlying the conflict? As you do this and replace defensiveness with responsibility, then your conversations will be more productive.
Here are some more tools to help dissolve defensiveness:
Let go of being right
Change your physiology - take some deep slow breaths, do some jumping jacks, or give your partner an 8 second hug
See your spouse as your ally rather than your enemy
Pause and count to 10
Notice when the conversation is getting off track and gently guide it back to the original topic
Practice kind speech - both in your words and in tone
If you mess up and get defensive, repair, own it, and give a mindful apology
When a couple begins to use criticism and contempt which leads to defensiveness it is no surprise that one partner begins to tune out the other. This brings us to our fourth horsemen, Stonewalling. Stonewalling occurs when a partner is feeling so emotionally and psychologically overwhelmed they close themselves off from their partner. Rather than confronting the issue with their spouse they, metaphorically, build an emotional wall between them and their partner (Gottman & Silver, 2018). This can look like tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in another activity. It is important to note that when someone is stonewalling they likely have an increased heart rate, stress hormones in the bloodstream, and be in a fight or flight response. Being in this state makes it almost impossible to have a productive conversation (Lisita, 2022).
There are a couple of antidotes to stonewalling. The first is to stop. Stonewalling sends the message of “I don’t care to help this situation” or even “I don’t care about you.” Instead of flat out ignoring your partner, communicating that you need to take a break can be beneficial. It is important to state a break is needed and when you will come back to find resolution. During the break it is also imperative to avoid any thoughts of righteous indignation such as, “I don’t have to take this anymore.” But instead focus on self-soothing to reduce heart rate and stress.
Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2018). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the international bestselling relationship expert. Orion Spring.
Kimberly Panganiban, M. A. (2022, March 7). Types of criticism: Expressing concern or complaint without harm. The Gottman Institute. Retrieved March 31, 2022, from https://www.gottman.com/blog/types-of-criticism-expressing-concern-or-complaint-without-harm/
Lisitsa, E. (2022, January 21). The Four horsemen: Stonewalling. The Gottman Institute. Retrieved March 13, 2022, from https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-stonewalling/