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The Four Communication Styles that Can Save Your Marriage

It’s completely natural to have conflict in all relationships. In fact, it’s inevitable, and we help couples through conflict in couples counseling regularly. The conflict even has positive aspects that offer opportunities for couple development, appreciation, and understanding. However, how couples manage conflict is what truly predicts the success or failure of the relationship.

Learning how to manage conflict in a couple of relationships is essential as there could be some conflicts that will never fully be resolved. Whether it’s due to personality differences or other fundamental differences, it’s common to have a few recurring conflicts that will never “go away,” which means managing them in a healthy way is key.

In a previous blog, we discussed the four communication styles that predict divorce, known as The Four Horsemen. If you missed it, you can find it here. Today, we will discuss the antidotes for The Four Horsemen, which is the first step in effectively managing conflict.

The Antidote to Criticism: Gentle Start-Up

We know a complaint surrounds a specific behavior, while criticism attacks a person’s character. The antidote for criticism is to complain without blame, which can be done by using what’s known as a gentle start-up.

A gentle start-up typically beings with an “I” statement, and it’s used to express how you feel about something and what you need to happen. Beginning a sentence with “You” can seem to blame, so in efforts to avoid this, try asking yourself these 2 questions before you speak:

  1. What do I feel?
  2. What do I need?

Criticism: “The clothes on the table have been there for 3 days! You’re so lazy and selfish! You never think of me or anyone in this family! You only care about yourself!”

Antidote: “I feel really overwhelmed by the clothes on the table, and I need them to put away. Can you put them away while I set the table for dinner?”

The Antidote starts with “I feel” and leads into “I need.” Furthermore, there is a bid that needs to be fulfilled. There is no blaming.

The Antidote to Contempt: A Culture of Appreciation and Respect

Contempt is displayed in statements coming from a position of moral superiority, and it is the greatest predictor of divorce.

Building a culture of appreciation and respect can begin with:

Small Things Often: Showing affection and expressing gratitude, respect, and appreciation for your partner on a regular basis will create a positive foundation in your relationship. This positive foundation will act as a buffer for negative feelings. Consistent, regular positive experiences within your relationship can be seen as “deposits” you make into your relationship bank account. When a negative experience, or a withdrawal, occurs, your relationship will stay “in the green” as long as the number of deposits you’ve made surpasses the number of withdrawals.

The Antidote to Defensiveness: Take Responsibility

Defensiveness is self-protection in the form of righteous indignation used to ward off a perceived attack. While becoming defensive is typically a response to criticism, it doesn’t solve the conflict.

Defensiveness is equivalent to blaming your partner, which usually escalates the conflict further. Accepting responsibility, even for a small part of the conflict, can help move things toward resolution.

Defensiveness: “I know I said I’d stop at the store for groceries on my way home from work, but I was too tired, okay? I had a day full of meetings and you know how busy work is for me right now! Why didn’t you just go to the store?”

Antidote: “I was really tired after my day full of meetings, but you’re right. I should have gone to the store like I said I would. I will keep my word next time or call you to discuss alternative options.”

By taking responsibility, even while expressing that they had a tiring day at work, this partner begins the journey toward compromise.

The Antidote to Stonewalling: Physiological Self-Soothing

Stonewalling is when someone completely withdraws from a conflict discussion due to feeling overwhelmed. The reaction to the emotional flooding is to shut down and disengage. Stonewalling puts couples under a lot of emotional pressure. Heart rates elevate, stress hormones are released, and a fight or flight response can be triggered.

Research shows that if couples take breaks during arguments, their heart rates have a chance to drop, and when they begin their discussion again, their interaction is more productive. Ultimately, they physiologically soothe themselves, allowing them to return to the discussion in a rational way.

The first step of self-soothing is to call a timeout:

“I feel overwhelmed. I need to take a break. Can we take 30 minutes to ourselves and then continuing talking?”

Your break should last at least 20 minutes so that your body can physiologically calm down. Try to avoid thoughts of righteous indignation (“I don’t have to put up with this!”) or innocent victimhood (“Why does he do this to me?”), and spend your time doing something soothing or distracting. Listening to music, reading, drawing, or exercise are all methods that can help you calm down.

Now that you know how to neutralize The Four Horsemen, you have the tools to manage conflict in your relationship. You just have to learn to use them! Couples therapy can help you hone these tools as you must call upon the antidotes as soon as you recognize one of the horsemen creeping in. This will help you and your partner build a healthy relationship for years to come!

Andrea R. Johnson, MA, LMFT is the co-owner of the Friendswood Center for Couples and Families. She has been in practice for nearly 10 years and works with older teens, young adults, and couples in Friendswood and surrounding areas.

Four Communication Styles that Predict Divorce

What if we could predict, with 90 percent accuracy, whether or not your marriage will end just by assessing communication between you and your spouse? Thanks to John and Julie Gottman, we can.

The Gottmans’ research found that nearly 70 percent of conflicts in couple relationships are unresolvable, but how couples manage their conflicts could mean the difference between remaining together and separating.

Through observing married couples and looking at a range of factors surrounding communication, the results were staggering. There were 4 negative communication patterns that were common amongst the couples whose relationships ended in divorce; these patterns are known as The Four Horsemen.

Sound familiar? The Four Horsemen is a metaphor illustrating the apocalypse in the New Testament. These times of conquest, war, hunger, and ultimately, death, are representative of the communication styles that predict the end of a romantic relationship.

The Four Horsemen

1) Criticism

Offering a critique or voicing a complaint to your partner isn’t analogous with this first of the four horsemen, criticism. Critiques and complaints can be expressed in a loving, productive way, and they center on an issue outside of your partner’s being, like action or behavior. Criticism, on the other hand, is an ad hominem attack. In essence, you are dismantling your partner’s character.

Learning the difference between a complaint and a criticism is essential in efforts to protect your relationship:

Complaint: There’s still a pile of your clothes sitting on the kitchen table. I need you to put them away, please, so I can put dinner on the table for the family.

Criticism: The clothes on the table have been there for 3 days! You’re so lazy and selfish! You never think of me or anyone in this family! You only care about yourself!

Criticism can leave your partner feeling attacked, rejected, and wounded. Often times, couples then find themselves in an escalation pattern where criticism reappears more frequently and the intensity is greater, which, unfortunately, can lead to the other four horsemen communication styles, like contempt.

2) Contempt

Contempt is the second horsemen and known as the single greatest predictor of divorce. This communication style includes mocking your partner with sarcasm and ridicule, calling them names, mimicking them, or using disrespectful body language, like eye-rolling. Contempt causes your partner to feel detested, insignificant, and worthless.

It goes even further than criticism, assuming a position of moral superiority over your partner. It sends the message that “I am better than you, and I don’t respect you.”

Ah, late again! SHOCKING! I don’t know why I expect an idiot like you to be able to tell time! Most 5-year-olds can tell the time better than you! I don’t have time for another child! You’re disgusting and pathetic! And you wonder why I never want to have sex with you!?

Contempt is the result of negative thoughts and feelings that have accumulated and have been simmering for an extended period of time, and it’s the most destructive of all of the four horsemen. It must be eliminated.

3) Defensiveness

Defensiveness is the third horseman, and typically, it is a response to criticism. When we feel unfairly criticized or accused, we offer excuses, hoping our partner will back down, and furthermore, we blame our partner instead. This method is almost never successful because overall, it says we don’t take our partner’s concerns seriously, we don’t take responsibility for our mistakes, and we think our partner is actually the problem.

I know I said I’d stop at the store for groceries on my way home from work, but I was too tired, okay?! I had a day full of meetings, and you know how busy work is for me right now! Why didn’t you just go to the store?

While it’s reasonable to defend yourself when under attack, defensiveness will only escalate the conflict if your partner doesn’t back down. Offering excuses and blaming your partner doesn’t allow for healthy conflict management.

4) Stonewalling

The fourth horseman is stonewalling. This response to contempt transpires when we withdraw or shut down. Rather than continuing interaction with our partner and confronting the issues, we, instead, turn away from our partner, act busy, or become engrossed in compulsive or distracting behaviors.

These evasive maneuvers are typically the result of becoming too overwhelmed to continue engaging. When we become physiologically flooded, we aren’t able to have a rational discussion with our partner.

What Now?

While the presence of The Four Horsemen is a pretty solid predictor of divorce, there is so much hope for couples who are experiencing these communication styles within their relationship. It’s possible to learn better forms of communication and conflict resolution, and couples therapy is an ideal environment for these shifts to begin taking place. Learning the antidotes that combat these four horsemen is important, but that, my friends, is a topic for another blog. Stay tuned!

Andrea R. Johnson, MA, LMFT is the co-owner of the Friendswood Center for Couples and Families. She has been in practice for nearly 10 years, and works with older teens, young adults, and couples in Friendswood and surrounding areas.