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The communication trap

Couples can fall into unhealthy styles of communicating, feeling trapped and unable to find a way out.

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photo courtesy of Brett Jordan, Unsplash
photo courtesy of Brett Jordan, Unsplash

A person’s communication style is generally based on their:

  •  personality (e.g., type a/type b, passive/aggressive/passive-aggressive, introvert/extrovert) 
  • observations of others during their upbringing 
  • interactions with others
  •  life experiences 
  • belief system 
  • relationship and length of time with their partner 
  • coping resources 

For example, Susan is outspoken, Type A, and tends to have a no-nonsense, aggressive approach with others. She witnessed a pattern of her mother railing against her father, casting insulting epithets his way. After years of being mistreated, her father eventually began responding to her mother in kind. Susan’s relationship with her partner, John, parallels that of her parents. 

John is Type B at his core, he is easy going and relates well to others. However, Susan and John have been together for 10 years and resentments towards each other have been growing over time. John’s approach has slowly changed, he has developed a sharp edge, and he now stands up to Susan with more of an aggressive delivery. 

Susan has no tolerance for people who do not carry their weight, and John is part of that group. She views herself as a workhorse who handles it all, and views John as selfish and lazy. Susan and John are overwhelmed and stressed in life, and are unhappy with one another. 

Susan and John generally fall into a communication style that is known as Criticism. The style is where one or both partners criticize the other by debasing their character, and using extreme wording such as “you always” and “you never.” You attack the person instead of dealing with the issue at hand. There is a need to gain power and control, and to be right. They assail each other’s character to elevate their own. They avoid responsibility by casting blame. 

Criticism is one of four communication styles identified by the renowned marital relationship expert, Dr. John Gottman. Through Dr. Gottman’s research with couples over the past 40 years, he coined four communication styles–Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling he refers to as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These are unhealthy ways of interacting that can predict the demise of a relationship.

Contempt is where a partner attacks the other with the intent of inflicting emotional pain. The character attack rises to a higher level than criticism, and includes name calling, sarcasm, taunting, mocking, sneering, and eye rolling. The one attacking assumes the role of superiority and perfection and views the partner as inferior and flawed. 

In the above example, Susan sometimes reaches the level of Contempt by telling John he is “lazy and worthless, never helps her, and she never should have married him.” She yells, sneers, shakes with rage, points her finger in his face, and follows him upstairs when he tries to escape the attack. 

The Contempt communication style is the greatest predictor of divorce.

Defensiveness is where the partner being attacked makes excuses, disagrees, fires back at the attacking partner to reverse the blame, and can adopt a victim role. Defensiveness is a classic response to being criticized. It is self-protection.   

Stonewalling is where a partner withdraws to avoid conflict. It can be an automatic, habitual reaction upon the first sign of conflict to avoid feeling overwhelmed and physiologically flooded. The partner who withdraws changes the subject, gives the silent treatment, attends to something else, or leaves the room. Stonewalling is a classic response to contempt.  

Dr. Gottman’s extensive research with couples has been used to predict which marriages will succeed or fail. Those couples who use Contempt have the highest rate of divorce. Another powerful finding shows that couples who engage in Contempt tend to have weakened immune systems. The article I wrote on Negativity Bias discusses that the harmful effects of living in a state of chronic stress can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, obesity, infection and cancer. 

I view couples who engage in frequent, destructive communication styles as living in a state of negative arousal, ready to attack or defend, like being in the fight or flight mode. Small issues become major crises. Issues are harbored and rehashed. The root causes are often ignored. Common reasons for lashing out are feeling hurt, scared, angry, and slighted. 

Begin repairing your relationship.

  • Identify your resentments and underlying issues
  • Explore your belief system and reframe faulty beliefs 
  • Consider your level of overwhelm and incorporate self-care 
  • Agree to changes both parties need to make 
  • Be open to the other person’s point of view 
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff 
  •  Implement constructive ways of communicating with your partner. 

Make changes to the style of communicating. The Gottman Institute recommends the following solutions or “antidotes” to the Four Horsemen..

Solution to Criticism – Use a neutral tone of voice. Don’t criticize. Don’t use the word “you” and blame your partner. State your feelings and needs, etc. with “I” statements. State as a “complaint” instead of a “criticism.” Focus on the issue instead of attacking the person.

Solution to Contempt – Don’t attack your partner. State your need as a respectful request and end it with appreciation. Notice the positive things. Dr. Gottman found you need 5 positives for every 1 negative interaction for a relationship to succeed. Effective positives are expressing gratitude, appreciation, interest, affection, humor, empathy, and respect. 

Solution to Defensiveness – Accept responsibility, even if it is for a portion of the conflict. This can open the line of communication to work together. Compromise when possible. 

Solution to Stonewalling – Practice physiological self-soothing. Stop the conflict and take a timeout for about 20 minutes to give yourself time to restore calm and composure.

These communication styles are not restricted to spouses and partners. Some parents use it with their kids, teens, and adult children. Some bosses use it with their staff. Some people use it with their coworkers. Some people use it with their friends

Regardless of the relationship, if you get caught in one of these traps, it’s time to get out, do some reflecting, and make some immediate changes. Establish trust and respect. You owe it to yourself and to those around you.

Maridee Hunter, Ph.D is a Clinical Psychologist and Life Coach practicing in Orange County and North County San Diego.

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