The 4 Biggest Communication Problems in Couples

Another ugly fight that started over “nothing”. Misunderstandings are building, your voices are rising, and it all escalates like wildfire. The kids are watching, either exasperated, frozen, scared or tense: you can’t hide the argument from them anymore like before. You’re embarrassed, you had promised yourself your relationship wouldn’t be like your parents, where disrespect was commonplace.

You know what’s going to happen already: another 6 to 24 hours of tension at home until things calm down. Inside, resentment takes over. At night, you’re not as into cuddling with your partner. You feel alone and deeply misunderstood. You sometimes cry hiding your tears.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you. A critical or accusatory way of communicating, with too many hurtful words or defensive silence, can slowly kill your relationship with the person you love the most.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

One of the most interesting research on couple relationships that I know of was conducted by psychologist Dr. John and his wife Dr. Julie Gottman for decades at the University of Washington. In 1986, they designed the “Love Lab” – a place that looks like a home, where couples stay by reproducing their everyday activities – and where they talk about their relationship – all while being observed by cameras.

After studying the dynamics of thousands of couples, the Gottmans and their team created formulas that could predict with a 93.6% accuracy rate which newlywed couples would ultimately divorce or stay together.

This article illustrates the 4 most destructive and widespread behaviours among these couples who divorce early – on average, 6 years after marriage.

Dr. John and Julie Gottman have given these behaviours the nickname “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” It’s a metaphor from the Bible that symbolizes the start of the end of the world. The 4 horsemen represent conquest, war, famine, and death.

Know that if you recognize yourself in these behaviours, it’s already a step toward change. You can then work to recognize them and replace them with healthy and productive forms of communication.

1. Criticism

It’s past 9 pm, and despite an agreement between you and your partner, the sink is full of dishes. You cooked, so the task of doing the dishes wasn’t yours tonight. You see the time passing, but your partner is still on the computer. It’s normal to feel worried and even angry. But there’s a difference between making a comment and criticizing your partner’s character or personality.

Two tigers in combat, illustrating destructive and cutting effect of criticism in a relationship
Criticism: “Here we go again. I always have to do everything around here. I can never count on you.”

Criticism is the most common “Horseman” of serious communication problems. It typically precedes the other three.

In criticism, instead of addressing a specific behaviour, we attack our partner’s character. We use “always” and “never” statements.

When they hear this kind of criticism, it’s likely that your partner will feel attacked, rejected, and hurt. They may either withdraw from the conversation or fight back. Either way, nothing gets resolved.

When using criticism as a weapon, the couple can fall into a dynamic where it increases in frequency and intensity.

The antidote: Making a comment by expressing a need.

In the same example above about the dishes, try saying:

I know you’re busy with work, but we had agreed on how to divide the evening chores. We’re going to bed soon and it’s worrying me. I need you to take care of the dishes, please.

2. Contempt

The second horseman is also the most toxic, as it communicates moral superiority or even disgust. According to Gottman, contempt is the biggest indicator of a future divorce. Lack of respect, ridicule, and insulting are ways of verbally despising someone; as well as eye-rolling or mimicking body language in a hurtful way.

Lion displaying a sneer of contempt, symbolizing contempt and disgust in relationships
Contempt: “Wow. Look at our beautiful kitchen. A real pigsty. And you, as usual, are glued to your stupid video games. You look like a teenager. You must think of me as your mother.”

The first antidote: Express your needs and emotions

In the infamous example of the dishes (a real subject of disputes in therapy offices, believe it or not!), you can clearly speak about the aspects that are bothering you, using “I” statements.

We had agreed last week that when one of us cooks, the other one does the dishes after we finish eating. I see you on the computer instead, and I’m really feeling upset. Right now, I’m angry because our agreement is not being respected. Also, I want you to know that for me timing is important because I’m looking forward to relaxing on the couch with you after. Secondly, I’m afraid that for you, spending time with me is not as important as it is for me. Do you understand? How do you see the situation?

The second antidote is to develop the habit of recognizing the good aspects of the relationship and expressing appreciation for your partner’s qualities.

It is not enough to simply appreciate your partner mentally. It is important to express gratitude, and recognition, and be specific. For example, “Thank you for helping me proofread my text. I admire your mastery of the French language and it was very kind of you.” Showing appreciation is a way to strengthen the “immune system” of the relationship. Saying positive things can evoke a positive response from your partner and can even change your own perspective – it’s like putting on rose-coloured glasses.

Little secret tip from your therapist: sincerely appreciate every gesture you want to see repeated. Positive reinforcement works very well with adult humans! 😉

3. Defensiveness

The third horseman, defensiveness, is a form of self-protection in the form of indignation or playing the victim

Imagine that partner “A” tried to discuss the dishwashing issue with the following statement: “We had agreed on dividing tasks in the evening and we’re about to go to bed soon, and it’s concerning me. I need you to take care of the dishes, please.”

Imagine that partner B, upon hearing this request – even though it was legitimate and made respectfully – feels attacked or belittled. Even though our partner “A” is well-intentioned, our own sensitivity, fear of disappointment, fear of conflict… may lead us to defend ourselves.

Two antelopes in confrontation, illustrating the headbutting feeling of communication problems in relationships
Defensiveness: “Hey, chill out. Who said I wasn’t gonna do it? Do it yourself if you’re in such a rush.”

In this maneuver, we refuse our responsibility by blaming our partner.

The antidote: Recognize your responsibility, take action and apologize if necessary.

“Oops, you’re completely right, we had an agreement. I understand that you’re upset. I’m sorry, I’ll take care of it now, thank you for bringing it up.

If saying ‘thank you’ at the end may seem overkill, let me explain. Your partner just helped you by clearly expressing a need rather than avoiding the subject and accumulating resentments. By thanking them, you show them that it is safe to speak openly with you.

4. Stonewalling

Stonewalling is an emotional withdrawal that amounts to erecting a stone wall between oneself and one’s partner. It is often a response to chronic contempt and negativity. It can take some time to appear in a relationship and can become a habit. According to Dr. Gottman, it is a defence used by 85% of men in heterosexual relationships.

The person using it is trying to calm the situation and lower the tension. They are also avoiding making things worse by saying things they’ll regret later. But by stopping to respond to one’s partner during a conflict, rather than calming it down, it escalates.

Two parrots on the same branch, their backs turned to each other, illustrating evasion and avoidance in relationships
Stonewalling: … *crickets*…

The antidote: Recognize one’s state and express a need for temporary distance.

I am really angry and cannot have a productive discussion right now. Can we take a break and come back to this later? I will be more open to listening when I am calm.

Next, take at least twenty minutes to distract yourself: watch videos on Youtube, take a walk, or read something. Don’t use this time to blame and criticize your partner mentally. Let the adrenaline go down and come back later, when you feel calmer, to discuss the issue.

Improving your communication is possible.

It’s really worth it to not give in to the urge to mindlessly unleash your frustration on your partner. Kind communication is one of the keys to a successful and satisfying relationship. The antidotes are there for you, use them! And if you need help, don’t hesitate to contact one of our couples therapists to accompany you.

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article written by:
Bianca Saia
Founder, Relationship Therapist
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