We often hear that communication is the key to long lasting and happy relationships. What specifically does good communication mean though? How do we communicate during conflict? Are there signs that a relationship is doomed?
At the peak of my intrigue about how relationships work and how they fail, a wonderful psychology professor introduced me to Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, when I was still an undergrad student.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a metaphor depicting the end of times in the New Testament. Dr. John Gottman uses this metaphor to describe the unhelpful communication styles and patterns that can predict the end of relationships.
I was reminded of the Four Horsemen recently as I found myself at a bit of a stalemate in my relationship over a minor misunderstanding. While we usually pride ourselves on our ‘communication skills’, for some reason this time we were struggling, we couldn’t get through to one another and found ourselves sinking deeper and deeper into an unhelpful communication pattern.
Without dwelling too long on our argument, the point I am trying to make here is that communication is not always easy, especially during conflict. The problem is that many couples are not aware of the warning signs. They may not notice them or might notice them and not know how to remedy them or worse yet, they might notice them and decide that it’s not that important to remedy them after all; “it’s just the way we are,” they might say.
Here are the 4 deadly communication styles that you need to look out for:
Criticism: which is different from complaints and critiques. Complaints voice specific concerns or grievances. A criticism however, is an attack on the partner’s character or personality. It attacks who they are and not what they do. Examples include calling them lazy, selfish or insensitive. The generality of the criticism makes it feel like an attack and leaves them feeling defensive, which in turn stifles the communication.
Contempt: is communicating with the other partner from a place of superiority. This communication style is intended to demean them verbally or non verbally. Verbally, you may be mocking, sarcastic, or dismissive. Nonverbally you may roll your eyes or motion to suggest they are just being ridiculous. Dr. Gottman believes that contempt is the strongest predictor of doom in relationships.
Defensiveness: when we feel accused or attacked we search for ways to protect ourselves against the attack. These may include denial, finding excuses or even turning the table so that our partner can just back off. If you are defensive you can use anything really to stop you from hearing what they are trying to tell you. Defensiveness makes it incredibly difficult for both partners to take responsibility for their own part in the conflict.
Stonewalling: my absolute favorite. There are many ways you can stonewall your partner: the silent treatment, distracting yourself with other things, and physically removing yourself from the situation. This is essentially about withdrawing from the relationship to avoid conflict. For some people conflict is daunting, for others exhausting, especially when it’s been going on for so long. Stonewalling may seem like a good way of avoiding conflict or avoiding the overwhelming emotions associated with it. Some partners stonewall as an attempt to avoid getting overly angry. And when you build a wall so high, it becomes increasingly harder to see and hear your partner. The answer here is not to avoid conflict but to find a healthy way of managing it.
These are the four warning signs that you either need to start preparing for Armageddon, or it’s time for you to put on your best Harry Stamper suit , play I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing and get to work, (just a couple of Armageddon references that I am definitely not ashamed of).
To eliminate unhealthy communication styles, you need to replace them with healthier ones. Here is the link to The Antidotes as described by The Gottman Institute. You can also find more detailed articles on each one of the four warning signs.
Use the comments box below to let me know your thoughts on these warning signs and your very own antidotes to them.