Communication is one of the most common reasons couples seek therapy. It can feel like a never-ending journey to be effectively understood by others and to better understand our partners. Unfortunately, things get in the way of understanding and being understood, in the form of unhelpful types of communication. Especially when you add kids into the equation. Lack of sleep, busy schedules, and the stresses of parenting can take quite a toll on the quality and style of interactions between a couple. Renowned psychologist, and marriage expert, John Gottman found that certain types of communication are so damaging to a relationship that their ongoing presence is a reliable predictor of relationship failure. Gottman has labeled Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling as the four unhealthy behaviors that can break a relationship. John Gottman calls these, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” The good news is that each of these has an antidote that, with practice, can replace each of the Four Horseman with a healthier means of communication.
Criticism: Within every criticism is an emotion and an unmet need, and typically, there is an underlying frustration resulting from not expressing the feeling until the emotion is boiling over. If you’re criticizing your spouse for not taking out the garbage, odds are you’ve been holding in that need for quite some time.
Criticism Example: “I asked you to pack the baby’s bag for the morning and it’s still not done. You always do this! Why are you so lazy?”
The need to have the baby’s bag ready for the morning is valid, but the delivery is flawed and will likely feel like an attack to your partner. Antidotes for criticism include, softening, being clear about the need, and keeping the focus on the behavior.
Antidote for Criticism: “The baby’s bag wasn’t packed last night. I’m feeling overwhelmed. Can we talk later and figure out a system that will work for both of us?”
Contempt: This is known as the most damaging of the four. Contempt is defined as “the feeling that a person or thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn”. Part of what sets contempt apart from the others is that there is intent to harm within words of contempt. Eye-rolling, sneering, name-calling, and belittling are all forms of contempt. Increasing positive sentiment towards your partner is one way to mitigate feelings/messages of contempt. This might look like focusing less on negatives in your relationship and shifting focus to what you love(d) and appreciate about your partner. Another antidote for contempt is to rebuild or strengthen the friendship between you and your partner.
Contempt Example: “Why are you such an idiot? If you were more interested in being a good mother/father and less focused on your own needs, you’d be able to get dinner ready on time.”
Antidote for Contempt: “Sitting down for family dinners is something that is really important to me. Can you please help me with that?”
Defensiveness: Defensiveness is a direct reaction to perceived criticism or contempt, in which one reacts in a “fear-motivated” manner, in an effort to protect self-esteem and feelings of self-efficacy. In response to a criticism like in my example above, one might hear a message of, “you can’t do anything right” or “you’re worthless” or “you’re worthless to me”. Framing messages from a place of mutual respect is a key antidote to defensiveness.
Complaint: “Did you make the appointment for the baby’s check-up today like I asked you to?”
Defensiveness: “No! You know that I had that important meeting today. If it was so important, why didn’t you do it?”
Antidote for Defensiveness: “Did you make the appointment for the baby’s check-up today like I asked you to?”
Complaint: “Wow, I completely forgot to do that today. I know it’s important; I’ll do it right now”
Stonewalling: Stonewalling, or shutting down, is typically a reaction to feeling emotionally overwhelmed, helpless or victimized. Disengaging from your partner when you are emotionally flooded is an example of stonewalling. The antidote for stonewalling is to self-soothe, which usually includes taking a break from the conversation, but communicating your need for a break to your partner.
Antidote for Stonewalling: “I know that this is an important conversation, but I need a 20 minute break. Can we take some time and restart”? Take 20 minutes and engage in a self-soothing activity like listening to music, meditation, a short walk, or a hot shower.
If you recognize some of these in your relationship, don’t panic, they pop up in most relationships from time-time, but when they are a frequent part of communication between you and your partner, that is a signal that the relationship needs attention. Couples therapy offers a safe space to address areas of your relationship that are problematic and to gain new skills to improve your relationship, but you don’t have to wait for your first session to get started. Challenge yourself to recognize when criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling show up and practice using the antidotes in real time.