“Communication, it’s the first thing we really learn in life. Funny thing is once we grow up, learn our words and really start talking, the harder it gets to know what to say or how to ask what we really need”-Grey’s Anatomy
Why do we find it so hard to communicate? Why do we insist on falling back on all those irrational behaviors we swore to ourselves we would never go back to just to save ourselves from having to communicate how we feel? Believe it or not, as cliché as it may sound, communication can either make or break a relationship. Sometimes, just by looking at a couple argue you can tell a lot about the sustainability of their relationship.
I think we’ve all been there, where in the midst of a heated discussion with our partner, we find ourselves so inclined to react in a certain way even though we know in our heart and soul that it’s going to end badly yet we insist on doing it anyway. Why do we do that and how do we make it stop?
Well, maybe understanding the certain behaviors we tend to carry out and acknowledging them for what they are could actually be our first way to eliminating them.
John Gottman, one of the 10 most influential therapists known for his work on marital stability, conducted a 10 year study that led him to the discovery of four toxic ways of communication between partners. He termed them “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” If present, the relationship is doomed unless something is done about it.
So, what are those Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse you say?
Well, from least to most dangerous they are: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. And as stated by Gottman himself: “ As each horseman arrives, he paves the way for the next.”
We shouldn’t mistake criticism for complaints because even though they both may seem one and the same, in actuality they are not. Criticism involves attacking someone’s personality or character while complaining is mainly directed or focused at a specific behavior. So, how do you know if you’re complaining or criticizing? Simple…Look at how your complaints start. If they start with “I” then you’re safe, however if they start with “you” then know that you’ve let the very first horseman in. As a general rule, criticisms usually involve blame and are more general and global than complaints. For example: “You never help me around the house.“ is definitely a criticism, while “I wanted you to help me around the house today” is a complaint.
It is also important to note that complaining is actually very healthy for relationships. By airing out your anger and disagreements you don’t leave space for complaints to pile up. Being given the space and freedom to express your worries and concerns no longer makes you resort to suppressing them one after the other and in turn helps your relationship get stronger on the long haul. If you find yourself always resorting to being critical, know that being critical is usually the result of pent up anger and unresolved issues. So, whenever you find yourself on the verge of being critical start by maybe revising yourself and try your hardest to keep from bottling things in all the time because even though it might seem like the easier alternative, it could be very, very unhealthy for you and your relationship with your partner.
As your issues with your partner begin to escalate and go unresolved, you find yourself admiring each other less and less and are instead left clouded with feelings of rage and anger which start to pervade other areas of your interactions together. You forget why you ever fell in love with that person and for some reason you fail to remember all the good qualities that made you fall in love with them to begin with. This is the time when you start insulting each other, calling each other names, using hostile humor and using body language-rolling your eyes, crossing your arm while speaking etc.- to express your contempt.
After having fallen in the trap of contempt, you and your partner start to get very defensive every time the other opens their mouth. This is quite understandable as whenever you find yourself being attacked the only logical way to react is to defend yourself. So, in turn, each one of you ends up playing the role of the victim and you never actually reach the heart of the matter because you’re both too busy defending yourselves. Defensiveness can actually take on different forms. You can be defensive through cross complaining, which involves meeting every complaint with a different complaint of your own. So, if your partner comes to you complaining about something you did, you respond by complaining about something that they did and so on. Another form is through repeating yourself. Instead of taking the time to understand your partner’s point of view you keep repeating your argument again and again without the intention of listening to your partner’s response. I think you can clearly see where the conversation ends up going… Nowhere. Other forms of defensiveness include body language, whining and using the words “yes” and “but” in one sentence.
“Stop keeping count of the scores and start putting in the effort to make this relationship work.”
The final and deadliest one of all is stonewalling. This phase is the most dangerous of them all because this is when partners don’t even bother to argue, or defend themselves at all. There is zero communication and no effort is put to repair the situation. You see your relationship spiraling into ruins and you feel like you can’t do anything to save it. You could literally be screaming at your partner and instead of your partner screaming back, they would either mutter a few words under their breath or remove themselves from the situation entirely by saying something like:” I’m going to go take a walk until you cool down” which is then followed by them exiting the premises. Whatever it is, by failing to communicate or confront the problem the chance of being able to save the relationship is just slim to none.
Having read the four destructive ways of communication or non-communication for that matter, all hope is not lost yet. By being able to identify with these behaviors and accepting their presence in your relationship you can now make a conscious effort to never fall into their deadly traps ever again. Instead of tearing your relationship down with all those ruthless remarks, which you know will almost, always end in an unrelenting argument, make a choice to say something positive that will uplift your partner’s mood and nurture your relationship. Stop keeping count of the scores and start putting in the effort to make this relationship work. Relationships are no walk in the park. They are never easy and they require constant effort, but with your passion and tenacity to make it work you will be rewarded with a loving relationship and a happy partner.