How to Counteract Negative Communication Styles in Your Relationship

By Valerie Capili, LMSW

All relationships have conflict— even the healthiest ones. Learning about how we navigate conflict can provide insight into whether the relationship is more likely to succeed or fail.

A renowned relationship psychologist, Dr. Gottman, conducted a study and found four styles of communication that are the biggest predictors of a relationship ending. He termed these, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” They are:

  1. Criticism:  If you or your partner attacks the other’s character instead of about the specific issue. This makes the recipient feel rejected and devalued rather than addressing the conflict at hand.
    Example: “You are always so stubborn and inconsiderate! This is your fault.”

  2. Contempt: If you or your partner treats the other with disrespect — mocking, name-calling, eye-rolling, scoffing. This creates an unequal footing; one person attacks from a position of moral superiority over the other. Contempt is the biggest predictor of a relationship ending.
    Example: “I can’t take you seriously when you’re like this, you’re acting stupid.”

  3. Defensiveness: If you or your partner makes excuses instead of taking responsibility for mistakes and/or acknowledging how you feel. Defensiveness signals to your partner that you don’t take their concerns or the conflict seriously and want to avoid taking ownership of the part you played.
    Example: “I was only late because traffic was bad and you didn’t text me to remind me.”

  4. Stonewalling: If you or your partner withdraws and shuts down from the interaction, even physically leaving the room. This can indicate you are feeling too overwhelmed to discuss things in a rational way. 

Do any of these ring true in your relationship? If so, don’t worry— this doesn’t mean things have to end. Partners can work to identify and counteract these styles to repair and progress towards a more healthy and successful relationship. Here are the antidotes according to the Gottman Institute:

  1. Instead of criticism — “I” statements:
    Voice your concerns and complaints in a way that addresses your own feelings and specific negative behaviors
    Example: “I feel hurt when you cut me off while I’m speaking.”

  2. Instead of contempt — Appreciation and Respect:
    Increase appreciation and gratitude for each other, to buffer negative feelings. The magic ratio of 5:1 positive to negative interactions increases the chances of couples staying together.
    Example: “Thank you for picking up the kids for the second time this week, my work has been very busy and you have been very flexible.”

  3. Instead of Defensiveness — Take Responsibility:
    Take time to hear out your partner’s concerns and feelings, and acknowledge responsibility when appropriate. This can prevent the conflict from escalating and makes the other person feel heard.
    Example: “There was traffic but I know how important the event was to you and I could have left work a bit earlier. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to support you.”

  4. Instead of Stonewalling — Time outs and Self-Care:
    When people stonewall, they are usually under emotional pressure which can increase heart rate, release stress hormones, and trigger a fight-or-flight response. In this heightened state, the best thing to do is take a time out for at least 20 minutes and do something to help calm you down. After this, you can return to the discussion with a calmer mind and body.
    Example: “I’m feeling very angry and I need some time to think. Can we take a break for 20 minutes and re-visit this?”

Valerie Capili is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you are looking for support in finding solutions to enhance your overall wellness, contact Cobb Psychotherapy by calling 718-260-6042 or emailing reception@cobbpsychotherapy.com, and see how therapy can help.

Elizabeth Cobb