Communication is the backbone of every relationship. Without communication there would be no relationship and it is usually the first thing to breakdown when a relationship starts to go south. In the beginning everything is great. You and your partner would talk for hours about everything and anything. Long talks over dinner about your day and her day. Long talks about the future. Then something happened and gone are the long talks and even the small talks are gone too. What happened? Perhaps it went like this:
You and your partner met through mutual friends. Your friends thought you would be the perfect match. She is a lawyer and you are in business finance. After the fix-up, you go on your first date at an amazing restaurant in Midtown. The conversation was amazing. There were not any awkward lulls in conversation. You quickly learn that you have a lot in common. Both of you are career driven, independent, and enjoy the outdoors. However, because both of you are career driven dating is somewhat difficult, but you figure it out. You have talks on the commute to and from work and often try to meet up on the weekend. Your relationship progresses and you start to think she is the one. Eventually, you pop the question, get married and start to settle down into a somewhat chaotic routine. Kids come in the picture. Promotions happen that require even more of your time and before you know it ten years have passed and you do not know who you are married to anymore. Communication has stopped. Moreover, both of you seem to be building lives without each other. The less you connect with each other through communication the further you drift away from each other. Both of you make efforts to talk, but there seems to be an undercurrent of anger of past wrongs that were never righted because you both chose to sweep them under the rug rather than talk about what was happening. Now there is a rug with a mountain of resentment underneath and neither of you know how to climb it. Thus, you do what all couples faced with the same problem – you try to fix it or you divorce.
This seems like a pretty common problem that I see in my practice. Lack of communication is the biggest barrier in the couples that I see. How did this happen and how do we fix it?
Dr. John Gottman, a prominent couple’s researcher and creator of the Gottman method for couples counseling states that there are four common communication styles that predict divorce. He calls them the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. The four horsemen are defensiveness, criticism, contempt, and stonewalling. He further state that healthy relationship seldom includes these styles of communication and if they do healthy couples do more to address the issue than couples in unhealthy relationships. Let us break down these horsemen:
1. Defensiveness – it is hard to not be defensive when you perceive that you are being attacked. However, when you become defensive rather than listen to what your partner is saying you become a victim and relinquish responsibility for your role in the problem. This also contributes to negative conversation.
2. Criticism – is generally what leads to defensiveness. When your partner says something like “you never” or “you always” it feels like an attack so it is perfectly natural to become defensive. It also seems perfectly natural to not want to talk to your partner if they are always eroding away at your self-esteem through chronic criticism.
3. Contempt – when you begin to have contempt for your partner, you are no longer equals in the relationship. Contempt is both verbal and non-verbal. Contempt comes out in communication with name calling, mocking, or sarcasm. Non-verbal signs of contempt are eye rolling or sneering. Contempt destroys communication because it breaks down how you see each other, no longer are you fond of your partner who mocks you and rolls his eyes whenever you try to communicate.
4. Stonewalling – this is when your partner withdraws from the conversation. The person appears to have shut down and no longer engages in the communication. This make the other person feel dismissed and assumes that he does not care about the problem.
These four horsemen contribute to negative communication in a relationship. It could be an argument about lying, for example. One partner feels the other partner is lying about something important in the relationship. He confronts his partner with criticism, stating she is always lying about this and that. She responds with defensiveness trying to explain why she lied about this and that so to her partner it sounds like excuses and not acknowledging her role in the lying. Now he is filled with contempt for her and always assumes she is lying and now she stonewalls every time he tries to communicate, which makes him try harder to get to the bottom of the lie and she stonewalls even more. It has become a negative cycle of communication with no resolution of the initial problem. This type of communication eats away at trust. Hurt and anger has taken over the communication and this becomes one of many issues that could get swept under the rug that further erode the couple’s ability to effectively communication with each other.
It can be difficult to identify where the communication breakdown occurred. The above example is pretty clear. However, sometimes one partner thinks that the issue is settled, but the other partner does not and thus the cycle of negative communication begins. Therefore, to answer the question of how did this happen, the couple separately needs to examine the problems that led to their negative communication in the first place. Negative communication did not happen overnight. It started with one unresolved problem such as lack of trust and snowballed from there. One person did not feel heard. The other person felt that his feelings were dismissed. What do we do now?
The issues that led to the ineffective communication need to be addressed through effective communication. The more you practice effective communication the less likely you or your partner will fall prey to one of the four horsemen. To effectively communicate with your partner, try these tips:
1. Use a safe word. When you are in an emotionally charged communication, you begin to lose access to the logical part of your brain. This is when you will say hurtful things or make threats of divorce. It would be beneficial to your communication to acknowledge that you a becoming to overwhelmed and need to step back for a few minutes to calm down. When things get heated you or your partner can say the agreed upon safe word and that signals to both of you that it is time to stop talking and go calm down. After the agreed upon time out you could try to talk again, but this time emotions will not be out of control and you will be less likely to say something hurtful.
2. Bring up issues. A lot of couples fall into this trap of being afraid to talk about issues that come up. This leads to sweeping things under the rug and resentments building. It is important to be open to discussing issues. How will anything ever be resolved if it is not communicated. One caveat about this though, it should be about specific issues not every wrong your partner has ever done. Bombarding your partner with all the issues at one time could lead back to negative communication. The point is to discuss issues as they come up not as they have built up.
3. Use “I” statements. The manner in which you speak is just as important as what you say. When discussing an issue be aware of your tone of voice, the speed of your voice, and your body language. Then when speaking instead of saying, “You always…” try saying, “I feel hurt [or whatever emotion you feel] because…” “I” statements limit your partner’s defensiveness because the statement does not criticize you’re her. Communicating with “I” statements builds trust in your communication because no one feels attacked and you are both effectively communicating to find a solution rather than playing the blame game.
4. Listen and validate. In order to have effective communication, you must ACTUALLY listen to each other. This is not the time to be watching the words come out of her mouth while thinking about your comeback. This is time to really hear the words coming out of her mouth, to hear the emotion behind the words she is saying, and to respond to a way that makes her feel that you understand what she said and you can empathize with her. You can hear what she needs from you and vice versa. Couples spend very little time listening and validating each other. Anger or resentment really makes this skill hard to master because one of you is too busy fighting to be right rather than fighting for your relationship.
5. Practice. These are skills to help you and your partner communicate effectively. Like any other skill you ever learned, you have to practice them before you are really effectively communicating.
When you and your partner first began the relationship, effective communication was probably never an issue. But somewhere along the way it did become a problem. This could stem from lack of communication about important issues before you committed to marriage or a long-term partnership. Some big issues that should be sorted out before a commitment is made include how will money be handled, how family will be dealt with, will we have children, if there are stepchildren what is the role of the nonparent, what role will each partner have in the relationship (as far as day to day things). Other issues could include five, ten, fifteen-year goals, career goals, relationship goals in general and maybe what are deal breakers. To me deal breakers are the thing that will most definitely end the relationship. For a lot of couples, infidelity for example is a deal breaker. Perhaps if some of these issues were hashed out before a long-term commitment was made maybe negative communication would not be a thing. In my view, not having a clear idea about each partners expectation leads to later resentments, which leads to negative communication and eventually the break down of the relationship.
To bring it all home, if you do not have effective communication in your relationship, you will not have a relationship for very long. Your relationship will be infiltrated with negative communication patterns. According to Gottman, if you and your partner engage in the four horsemen on a regular basis, your chance of divorce is 93% compared to couples who do not engage in defensiveness, criticism, contempt, or stonewalling when communicating. That is a pretty astonishing statistic.
I get it though, it is really hard to let go of resentment that have built up over the course of the relationship. It is hard to find your way back to your partner because this is not how you envisioned what your relationship would be like. Moreover, you are not even sure how to go about addressing the issues that led to negative communication because you are taking all the responsibility and letting your partner say whatever because it is your fault anyways. I am here to tell you it is not. It takes two people for communication to breakdown and it takes both people equally working towards making it better. If only one partner of the relationship is working to fix it, then I hate to say it but it will not get fixed. It will most likely become worse. There is hope though.
There is always hope. You and your partner can try the communication tips above. You could acknowledge that there are issues that you cannot resolve on your own and decide to try couples counseling. If the relationship is worth fighting for couple’s counseling maybe the thing that saves it. Give me a call 770-609-3014, let’s talk and work together to save your relationship.