Four pitfalls of communication

Do you feel like you and your partner have communication problems? As a marriage counselor, couples frequently ask for help with “communication issues”. But what exactly does that mean? To address communication problems with couples in counseling I often look to the four dangerous patterns Dr. John Gottman from the University of Washington identified as predictive of break-ups and divorce when they happen too frequently:

1. Criticism: We are critical when we communicate in ways that can be interpreted as personally attacking or blaming. Inevitably concerns and frustrations in marriage expressed as criticism rise to the surface, often during a heated moment.  When the communication is interpreted as attacking or blaming, that criticism just makes things worse.  Concerns, however, can be expressed in ways that are not viewed as personally attacking. For example, a criticism might be: “Why didn’t you call me when you were coming home late? Didn’t you realize that I was waiting for you? You always put work ahead of me and the kids. You never think about how your actions impact other people.” Clearly there is a concern illustrated here that may need to be expressed, but the way the concern was presented was very personally attacking and blaming. A better way to express this might be: “I was worried when I didn’t hear from you when you normally get home. I care about you and would really appreciate knowing when you are coming home.” The latter example communicates the same concerns, but in a much gentler, less critical way that does not focus on blaming but focuses on expressing feelings.         

2. Contempt: We are contemptuous when a feeling of resentment fuels the way we feel and communicate. We may be mean, disrespectful, sarcastic, etc. We take criticism to another level with contempt. However, unlike criticism, there are no healthy alternatives to communicating with contempt. We have to completely eradicate it from our communication. An example of contempt is: “You are so lazy. I was working hard all day and I came home to a house that looks like a bomb went off. If you were not such a slob and thought about someone other than yourself once in a while we wouldn’t have so many marriage problems”. Contempt is the most dangerous communication pattern in a marriage. My experience working with couples has been that if contempt is present then the relationship problems likely extend far beyond communication issues.

3. Defensiveness: This is the most common of the 4 dangerous communication patterns that I address in counseling. It is human tendency to defend ourselves when we feel accused, attacked, or when we feel a need to clarify something. For example, if our spouse starts to express a concern and we recognize some error, misunderstanding, or misrepresentation in something they are saying, we often jump in to “correct” what they are saying. This is a sure way to start an argument. The problem with this defensive interruption is that it sends the message that we are more interested in correcting them than listening to what they are saying. A better reaction would be to listen, avoid the temptation to interrupt, clarify, or defend ourselves, and perhaps take personal responsibility (even if we don’t feel it is entirely our fault). This can be difficult. It can help to focus on taking responsibility for your partner’s emotional experience. Don’t waste your energy comparing notes about what did or did not happen.

4. Stonewalling: Stonewalling is just what it sounds like – building a wall to avoid our relationship problems. Two of the most common reasons we stonewall are either we are uncomfortable and don’t want to face the issue, or we use conflict avoidance as a weapon to “one-up” the other person. Problems tend to accumulate if they are stonewalled and the result is often a big blowup down the road. Stonewalling never solves problems – they will inevitably come back to haunt us later. We need to recognize that it is essential for us to find a way to talk, listen, and validate each other’s feelings rather than avoiding the issues.

Couples who learn how to communicate without criticism, contempt, defensiveness, or stonewalling will be healthier. I encourage you to consider how you can improve in these areas. I am always working on it. We all need to.