Listeners to my Savvy Psychologist podcast really seemed to respond to my boundary episodes. I received so many comments and questions that I decided to respond to one of the themes that arose: unhealthy communication. Do you or people you’re close with engage in behaviors that break down communication and lead to more distance in your relationships? If so, this episode is for you.
I’m going to share four communication errors that can ruin your relationships. These are commonly referred to as the “Four Horsemen” and come to us from relationship experts Dr. John and Julia Gottman. They have written several books on relationships and while they primarily focus on romantic relationships, I have seen these communication assassins in all types of relationships.
The first assassin is criticism. Now I know what you may be thinking: “Does this mean I can never express my displeasure in the relationship?” No! You need to understand the difference between unhealthy criticism and a legitimate complaint.
Let’s say your partner agreed to make dinner and when you get home from work, you notice they are watching TV and there is no dinner in sight. It’s completely reasonable for you to express some frustration on them not following through with the agreement.
Criticism is different in that people who are critical attack the whole person and don’t focus on the behavior and their non-judgmental experience of the behavior. For instance, if I say to my partner, “I’m really frustrated because you agreed to make dinner and this is the second time this has happened this month,” that is a complaint. If I say to my partner, “You don’t care about me, you’re so selfish, how could you forget? You never think about anyone but yourself,” that is criticism.
Do you see the difference? In one example, I am stating what happened and how it made me feel and in the second I am eviscerating the person with my words. When these types of exchanges become pervasive, they can increase in intensity and lead other assassins into your relationship.
I want to talk about defensiveness next as it comes up often in relationships. We’ve all been defensive at one time or another. In many cases criticism and defensiveness go hand in hand because if you feel attacked, dejected, and stressed you will likely have the urge to be defensive.
The issue here is that defensiveness is more likely to lead to an escalation, particularly if the person you are dealing with is not likely to back down. Defensiveness relies on your ability to shift blame to the other person, which doesn’t allow for you to communicate in a healthy manner and come to an agreed-upon resolution.
Let’s go back to my example from earlier. You bring up to your partner that they didn’t make dinner and they respond defensively: “Well, I had a long day at work too, and I’m busy, and stressed with this new deal. You should have reminded me about dinner or if you would’ve checked in with me on your way home, I would have told you and you could have picked something up. It’s not a big deal, if you’re hungry order something on Seamless.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but if it was my partner’s turn to make dinner and they said that to me, I’d feel pretty salty. A better response would be to acknowledge how your actions made your partner feel and to try to rectify it. For example: “Oh, crap, I’m so sorry, it totally slipped my mind. Give me 30 minutes and I’ll make something for us quickly.”
The next assassin is contempt. Contempt is a bigger monster than criticism because the person who is contemptuous places themselves as a moral superior to the other.
When we engage in contemptuous behavior, we are mean. We are sarcastic at the expense of the other person. We may mock or ridicule, call them names, use dismissive body language like rolling eyes and sucking teeth, and are genuinely disrespectful.
Many times contempt comes about because one partner has been stewing on negative thoughts about the other for some time. If you’re being treated in this way by another person, it’s high time to reinforce some boundaries and advocate for yourself.
Last, we will discuss stonewalling. This assassin shuts down all communication. When you stonewall someone you withdraw from the situation. This can be literally walking away from the conversation, emotionally shutting down, not responding, or avoiding.
One thing to know about stonewalling is that often the person who engages in this behavior is emotionally overwhelmed, and their response is to tap out and stay tapped out. Unfortunately, this will only lead to more problems. If you find yourself susceptible to being psychologically overwhelmed, instead of tapping out, take a time out. Let your partner know that you can’t stay present in the conversation because you’re psychologically flooded and you need to step away for a discrete period of time, like 15 minutes. This will allow you to calm down and be active in the communication process.
Remember that conflict in all relationships is necessary and if you spend all your time avoiding it, your relationship can’t heal or grow. Evolution requires friction—you have to be confronted with a problem that isn’t easily solved in order to discover new pathways.
How to fight back against communication assassins
Above we learned a bit more about the importance of communication and the antidotes for the communication assassins that I introduced in last week’s episode. This will give you a general idea of how to start to reduce the impact of these communication errors on your relationships. If you haven’t listened to the episode on the four communication assassins, now’s the time to do so! There’s a link in the description of this episode, or just scroll back a bit in your podcast app.
Last week, I introduced criticism, an assassin that attacks the whole person and can be damaging to the relationship because it’s judgmental and often quite mean. Note that a complaint is different because it focuses on the behavior and your experience of that behavior.
The counterattack is called the gentle start-up, which involves complaint without judgment or blame. I’m sure you’ve heard about using I-statements and these come in handy here. As a reminder, when you use you-statements, it can feel like a punch in the gut each time. For example, “you don’t care about me,” “you’re so lazy,” or ”you’re worthless at this, I can’t count on you for anything.”
While I used an I-statement in the last example, it actually has the effect of driving the criticism deeper and is not the correct use of I-statements. This is kind of like the spelling rule of I before E except after C, except for when I-statements are used after you-statements during criticisms. It’s all wrong!
You instead want to describe the problem and express your need using I-statements. An I-statement can be literal or it can be implied—you can feel the I-statement in the dialogue because I-statement utilization requires the user to take ownership of their observations and responses without judgment.
For instance, let’s say your roommate isn’t taking out the trash when it’s their turn. If you said the statement, “you’re worthless at this, I can’t count on you for anything,” that’s obviously a criticism. Another way you could say this where the I is obvious is, “I noticed that you haven’t taken out the trash for the last four weeks. When this happens I get really frustrated. Can we sit down and figure out a better solution?” Another way to say it where the I-statement is implied is, “When it’s your turn and you don’t take out the trash, I get really frustrated. Can we please talk about this?”
Again, the important part is to remove the blame and judgment from the statement by sticking to the facts and your experience of those facts. You also want to express what you need to the person. Don’t assume that it will be obvious to them. While I know we may have an urge to be judgmental or feel that you-statements are justified, what I can tell you is that it rarely leads to mutually beneficial and benevolent outcomes.
Let’s move on to defensiveness. Giving defensiveness the boot requires taking responsibility. Defensiveness is usually a tactic to deflect responsibility, but what it really does is add more ire to the fire. Taking responsibility for the part that you play in a conflict is like putting a lid on a candle. There may be a little lingering smoke to contend with, but you likely won’t have to worry about your entire house burning down.
In terms of the previous example, the roommate could state, “you’re right, I haven’t been staying on top of my household chores. It would actually be helpful for us to talk and plan together as I’d like to do better.” That type of response leaves the door open to work as a team and tackle problems as a unit. Do you see how that’s more helpful than saying, “well, what’s the big deal, you do it if it bothers you so much”?
Oftentimes we think about increasing intimacy in a relationship through fun activities and physical affection, but you can also increase intimacy and closeness in a relationship by communicating effectively and working through hard issues together. Don’t let the defensiveness assassin put a wedge between you and your relationships.
Increasing appreciation and respect
Contempt can feel like death by a 1000 cuts. The sarcasm, the name-calling, and hurtful body language like eye rolling or exasperated sighs all create tiny wounds that eventually take out the intended victim and bring down the whole relationship with them.
In order to combat contempt, you must begin to build a culture of appreciation and respect within the relationship. It is important to remember that all humans inherently have value and that value imparts a need for respect. When we love someone, but respect is not a part of that love, it feels the same as a backhanded compliment—but worse.
How many of us have spent years in therapy because we’ve had to deal with early relationships where the person loved us, but didn’t have the capacity to express that properly? Don’t repeat those cycles.
So, you may ask—what does a culture of appreciation and respect look like? Thank you for asking! The same way your words can hurt, they can heal. Let’s say you live with a partner who struggles with depression and they have been very stressed with work lately. This has led to them being distracted and withdrawn in social interactions with you. A contemptuous statement would be, “What’s wrong with you, I’m trying to talk to you, and you don’t even bother to listen. You’re so selfish!” A statement that denotes appreciation and respect might be, “I know you’ve been depressed and stressed lately, but when we are together can we both try to be present for this period of time? I’d really appreciate that and if you need to take a time out because your energy is depleted at any point, let me know.”
Last, let’s talk stonewalling. This is the assassin that shuts down all communication. As I mentioned last week, many people engage in stonewalling because they become psychologically overwhelmed. The counterattack for this is physiological self-soothing. When we are overwhelmed, we get triggered into our flight/fight reactions and it’s important that we know how to respond when our meter is pushed into the red.
Previously, I told you that instead of tapping out, you should take a time out and that’s really true. Research shows that as little as half an hour away from the argument or problem led to arousal coming down and people were able to come back and discuss the topic in a much more calm fashion.
If you found this helpful, you might also like my episode on 3 TIPs to Reduce Emotional Overwhelm.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.