One big reason couples seek marriage counseling is communication, or more precisely, a lack of communication. So, a few weeks ago I discussed the first two horsemen of what Dr. John Gottman, relationship expert has identified as the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. These are ways of communicating that are detrimental to a relationship. The first two were criticism and contempt, find Part 1 here. This week we will look at the last two, defensiveness and stonewalling and the antidote to these.
Defensiveness is what we do to protect ourselves from criticism or perceived threats. We may try to explain or defend our words or actions, we may even go on the attack with our partner. When we start defending ourselves, we only make things worse. Defensiveness has also been shown to prolong the argument and causes our blood pressure to rise.
So, what can we do when we feel a disagreement or conflict is about to happen? Dr. Gottman recommends a few things. First, we can take more responsibility for the problems in the relationship. He notes that one person is at least 30% responsible for the situation. Asking yourself, ‘what have I done to contribute to this’ is a good start.
Another step is to use active listening when your partner is speaking. This is where you are listening, so you can repeat back to them what they are saying to you. We often are thinking of our response to what they are saying which keeps us from fully hearing them. Now, when you are repeating back what you heard, this is not a word-for-word recount, but a general understanding of their meaning and points. Then, they can confirm or correct your understanding. Then, when you are sure you are both talking about the same thing, you can respond and work towards a solution. Active listening will save a lot of disagreements, arguments, and marriage counseling.
A third tool to implement is to say ‘Yes, I understand’. This, like the active listening above, helps your partner to feel heard and understood. It is not that you are necessarily agreeing with them, but that you are understanding what they are saying and their point.
Our final horseman is Stonewalling.
Stonewalling is when one refuses to respond in an argument or walks away. But wait, aren’t we supposed to walk away instead of fighting? Yes and no. Yes, it is good to take a time out to cool down and to think about the issue at hand. The problem comes in when we walk away, and we never discuss what the problem is. This is stonewalling. Things will not get resolved and will build up and create hurt feelings. When one person just walks away, it usually makes the other partner angrier. Then the complaints build up and can come out as criticism and contempt as we discussed in Part 1.
So, what can we do to avoid stonewalling? Dr. Gottman recommends that we air complaints when they happen in a respectful way. Don’t let them build up. This will lead to more positive changes and less contempt and stonewalling. If the conversation gets heated, call a time-out and set a time to discuss the issue before walking away. This may be a time after the kids are in bed, after dinner, or over lunch. It is important to choose a time when you will not be interrupted or too tired. Be sure to put away cell phones so you can focus on one another. Before the set time to talk, think about the issue so you can be clear and specific as mentioned in Part 1 of this blog. Other pointers from Part 1 will also help in the discussion such as being considerate of your partner's feelings when expressing negatives, list more positives than negatives, use ‘I’ statements, and start the conversation on a positive note.
I hope you have gained some insight and useful tools to make your relationship stronger and your communication better. Implementing these techniques can help to stop the negative cycle and bring about effective communication in your relationship. Isn’t that what we all want? If you find you are struggling with communication or in your relationship, couples therapy can help you get back on track. Hope you enjoyed this blog.
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About the Author
Julia Nelson, LPCA, LMFTA is a psychotherapist and owns a private practice in Flat Rock and Forest City, NC. In general, she specializes in couples counseling, anxiety and depression counseling, premarital counseling, and parenting classes. She is also a Certified Clinical Military Counselor. To find out more about Julia click here: Nelson Christian Counseling.
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