Negative communication can be destructive to relationships. Conflicts escalate not because of the issue at hand, but rather because of the way couples talk to each other. At times, we end up fighting over what is being said or how things are said and the initial problem does not get resolved. John Gottman, a well-known relationship researcher, author and clinician calls these kinds of negativity the “Four horsemen of the Apocalypse” because they are so harmful to a relationship. According to Gottman, arguments do not predict relationship breakup but the way you argue does. The four negative interactions are: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling (withdrawing). The following is taken from Gottman and Silver’s book “The seven principles for making marriage work” (2000).
You will always have complaints about someone you live with. But there is a big difference between a complaint and a criticism. “I am really angry that you did not wash the dishes again last night. We agreed that we’d take turns” is a complaint. “I can’t believe you are so lazy. I hate having to do the dishes when it’s your turn. You just don’t care” is a criticism. A complaint only addresses the specific behaviour or action of your partner. A criticism is more global and adds judgement or negative words about your partner’s character or personality. Starting with “what is wrong with you” is a harsh start up that will not lead to any productive discussion! We all have the tendency to do this, but it’s when it becomes pervasive that it leads the way for more negative interactions and relationship breakdown.
Sarcasm and cynicism are types of contempt. So are name calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery and hostile humour. In whatever form, contempt is toxic to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message that you are disgusted with him/her. inevitable, contempt leads to more conflict rather than to reconciliation. Contempt is fuelled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner. you’re more likely to have such thoughts if your differences are not resolved.
When you are attacked, it is understandable that you defend yourself. However, this approach rarely has the desired effect, and the attacking partner will not back down or apologise. Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner and will probably just escalate the conflict. What you are really saying is “the problem is not me, it’s you”. Criticism, contempt and defensiveness all rend to bounce off each other in a vicious cycle if you are not aware of them.
In my work with couples, I often hear the phrases “I just shut down” or “it’s like a wall has come up” or “she is not really there”. In a relationship when discussions start with a harsh start-up, where criticism and contempt lead to defensiveness, which leads to more contempt and more defensiveness, eventually one partner tunes out. For example, when one partner comes home and is met with a tirade of criticism, he/she may hide behind the computer. The less responsive he is, the more she yells. Eventually he gets up and leaves the room. Rather than confronting his partner, this partner disengages. By turning away form her, he is avoiding a fight. However, he is also avoiding his relationship. He has become a stonewaller (or withdrawer). Both men and women can be withdrawers in a relationship but more men have a tendency to do this. During a typical conversation between two people, the listener gives all kinds of cues that he/she is paying attention. He may use eye contact, nod his head, and say “yeah” or “uh-huh”.
You can overcome these communication roadblocks by being more mindful of your reactions and choosing to respond differently to your partner. Our therapists can help you identify and modify these negative interactions if you have concerns that they are affecting your relationship. Gottman and Silver discusses these negative “horsemen” in greater depth and makes recommendations to overcome these negative interactions, e.g., using a “soft start-up” to a discussion (instead of a “harsh start-up” involving the above negative interactions). You can also refer to our communication tips in our blog under Couples (Time out, Ground Rules, and Speaker Listener Technique) and Coping Skills (mindfulness, communicating assertively).
Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (2000). The seven principles for making marriage work. London: Orion Books.
Written by Dr Raylene Chen, couples therapist and clinical psychologist on the Gold Coast. For more relationship help and advise, check out more blogs written by Dr Chen at our CBT Professionals website.
Disclaimer: Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only and is not intended to replace advise from your doctor or registered health professional. Readers are urged to consult their registered practitioner for diagnosis and treatment for their medical concerns.