Good communication is a skill. No one is naturally perfect at it. What can make matters worse is when two less than perfect people come together in a relationship and fail at communicating with one another. It is one of the most frustrating things out there. One person is frustrated about this and the other person thinks they are saying that and then you get into an argument over this and that and keep shouting past each other.
Not only can you be on different pages, but when one person gets frustrated, the other person can get defensive. It’s like both of you are saying “Say hello to my wall. It is here to keep you out and me from getting any closer to you than I have to.” The wall can manifest in withdrawing or shouting at the other person. When bad communication is present, there is little to no chance at making a significant connection.
Dr. John and Julie Gottman have done a lot of research discovering what makes marriages work and what doesn’t. When it comes to communication they say that there are four patterns of communication (The 4 Horseman) that can indicate the end of a relationship. These four ways of communicating are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.
Criticism – Criticism is easy to spot when you hear words like “always” or “never” during conflict. An example of criticism would be “You always forget to clean up after yourself. You never take responsibility for anything around the house.”
Defensiveness – Defensiveness is the tendency to avoid blame for any part in a conflict. An example of defensiveness would be “I was too busy to get to that today, why you didn’t just do it?” You push all of the blame onto someone or something else.
Contempt – Contempt is an attack on your partner’s sense of self. Each horseman is damaging to your partner, but contempt can be one of the most painful forms of bad conflict processing. An example of contempt during conflict is “You are such a worthless person. I can’t believe I’m married to you.” Contempt is incredibly harsh and can produce a lot of destruction within a marriage.
Stonewalling – Stonewalling is the easiest to spot because it involves few words, if any. When your partner is stonewalling they stop speaking and sometimes leave the room to avoid conflict. This signals that they have become hopeless about resolving conflict or feel too overwhelmed to handle conflict. The more that stonewalling surfaces in a relationship, the more it damages the marriage.
If you’re human you have probably used a couple of these in the past or maybe even today. No one grows up in a household where conflict is managed in a perfectly healthy way, so we bring those conflict strategies into our friendships and marriages. It is okay to mess up, but let’s get to work on using healthy conflict strategies. Here are a few alternatives to The 4 Horseman that allow healthy communication and encourage a healthy marriage as well.
Have a Gentle Posture – Instead of telling your partner what they always or never do, try to focus on the reason what they have done has upset you. In the process use more “I” statements than “You” statements. An example of having a gentle posture would be “Whenever I ask for help cleaning around the house and don’t get it, I feel burdened and stressed. Would you mind helping me clean up?”
Take Responsibility – Instead of placing blame on others or something else, take responsibility for your wrongdoing. An example might be “I completely forgot to do that. I apologize and will take care of it.”
Show Care and Respect – Using contempt within a marriage is the one of the worst things that can happen to your relationship with your partner. Instead of attacking and breaking down your partner, make it a priority to compliment and elevate them. An example of showing care and respect would be, “I really admire how much effort you put into spending time with the kids. You are a really great mom/dad”
Take a break, then come back – Stonewalling is giving up on the conflict and avoiding any sort of resolution. When you get frustrated or upset, take a break until you have calmed down. Once you have calmed down, go back to your partner and try to find a resolution or compromise. This signals that you do care and you do want to work through your disagreement.
When you reach a roadblock in communication with your partner, it can become very straining on your relationship. Instead of communicating in a hurtful way, try some of these healthy alternatives to The 4 Horseman out. If you continue to struggle with issues within your marriage, it might be helpful to reach out to a local therapist. Some therapists have years of specialization in marriage work and might be able to help. Sometimes working through conflict can seem impossible, but there is hope.