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4 Ways That Couples Get Into Trouble Communicating and What to Do About It


We’re going to let you in on a secret. What do you think is the most common complaint/reason that couples come to us for couples therapy? Tick, tick, tick…Pencils down. Drum Roll, please…..It’s communication issues! Alright, you might be rolling your eyes saying ‘well, duh!’ And, we hear you. If you have spent any time in a relationship (professional, romantic, or platonic), you understand just how crucial good communication is and likely have experienced what happens if it breaks down.

Couples communication is one of the most important aspects of a healthy relationship. If you and your partner can’t communicate effectively with each other, then it’s likely that your relationship will suffer. One of the best-known relationship experts in this field is Dr. John Gottman who has spent decades studying couples communication patterns for his research on marriage stability and divorce prediction. He found four main communication issues that lead to couples getting into trouble with each other: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. In this post, we’ll talk about all four horsemen (and their antidotes) so if you’re struggling with any of them you know what to do!

Dr. John Gottman coined the four patterns that get couples into trouble with one another the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Paints quite a picture, doesn’t it? The truth is that these styles, over time, predict relationship demise and dissatisfaction, so it’s crucial to understand what they are, interrupt them when they occur, and do something that works instead.

Don’t Do: Criticism

Criticism is communication that attacks the person rather than their behavior. It usually begins with “you always” or “you never.” This style of communication does not allow for discussion, solves nothing, and leaves both people feeling like they have lost control. Leading with a gentle start-up can get you unstuck when you are trapped in being critical of one another.

Do This Instead: Gentle Start-Up

A communication style that works in the presence of criticism is what Dr. Gottman calls “gentle start-up.” The way a conversation is broached predicts how it ends. If you start off right, chances are it will go well. Ask, “I’m really trying to understand you more right now– could you tell me more about that?” or “it sounds like what we’re talking about is pretty upsetting for both of us- I want to help our communication with each other be as effective and productive as possible.” This style helps couples get out of the trap. Using “I” language instead of “You” language and being specific and focusing on one issue at a time will set you up for success.

Don’t Do: Defensiveness

Criticism and defensiveness go hand-in-hand. Where is one there is the other. If we sit with a couple in couples therapy and one partner starts being critical, it usually takes seconds before the other partner gets defensive. If we have a finger harshly pointing at us, our human instinct is to get out a shield and defend ourselves. Defensiveness usually occurs when someone feels they are being attacked, and it can lead to a back-and-forth conversation where no one gets what they want or needs out of the communication. Rather than engaging in this type of communication, try taking responsibility.

Do This Instead: Take Responsibility

Taking responsibility is communication that takes ownership and apologizes when there’s been a problem in the relationship, even if it was not your fault. It turns out this type of communication leads to an increase in trust between partners! When you are finding yourself getting defensive, see if there is something you can take responsibility for. And we are not talking about, “you’re right, this is all my fault.” Taking responsibility can look like acknowledging that you’ve been stressed recently, or that you haven’t been bringing issues up when they occur. When one partner starts taking responsibility, the other one will usually follow!

Don’t Do: Stonewalling

Stonewalling is communication that refuses to talk or communicate. It often occurs when someone feels attacked and shuts down communication because they are hurt, angry, frustrated, overwhelmed, or fearful of conflict. Sometimes, partners don’t realize that stonewalling really is an indicator that the partner is getting highly aroused and overwhelmed and that their system is beginning to shut down. Rather than allowing yourself to get caught up in this behavior try physiological self-soothing.

Do This Instead: Physiological Self-Soothing

Physiological self-soothing communication is communication that calms oneself down from feeling overwhelmed or fearful. It can include breathing exercises, deep muscle relaxation, and physical activity to help reduce tension and provide a good mental state for communication.

Don’t Do: Contempt

Think of contempt as an escalation of criticism. Contempt includes communication that expresses feelings of disgust towards the other person. It communicates a sense of superiority and is often accompanied by eye-rolling or mocking laughter when the other person talks. Out of the four horsemen, contempt is most highly correlated with relationship demise and divorce. Rather than engage in communication that puts your partner down, use communication to build a culture of appreciation.

Do This Instead: Build A Culture Of Appreciation

Building a culture of appreciation communication style focuses on gratitude for what you have and what your partner does. It also involves communication about how you can do better in the future together as a team, with each person feeling heard for their needs and desires. This communication style is active listening: giving space to one another without judgment so that both people feel respected, seen, and loved.

It will assist you in better understanding your partner and strengthen your marriage.

Couples can deal with sensitive issues by learning and adhering to these couples’ communication exercises. Poor communication can have far-reaching consequences that go beyond limiting your ability to deal with everyday issues.

You’ll be able to enjoy a new level of understanding if you practice these effective communication exercises for couples. To resolve any deep-seated relationship issues, it is also advisable to connect with a professional for more communication help for couples.

\\ To wrap up, we want to make sure that you understand that we all can get trapped by the four horsemen, and the fact that they might be happening in your relationship right now does not mean that your relationship is doomed. Our invitation is for you to start paying attention to how you communicate, and to stop negative styles in their tracks using the antidotes instead. You got this!

If you feel like the horsemen have run rampant and you are struggling to get unstuck by yourself, couples therapy might be a great option for you. Hit us up and we will get you connected!

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Therapist in Nashville, TN

At Therapie, we offer individual and couples therapy, as well as weekend intensives and online courses, so you can get the support you need, when you need it. Our services include: individual counseling, premarital, and couples counseling. If you are working on issues related to work, your relationship or life, we got you.


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