We often get caught in negative patterns in our marriage or relationship making it hard to have good or effective communication. Basic, respectful communication can go out the window when we are in the heat of an argument or just plain hurting. We can blast each other with words from our hurt or sometimes feel like we are not even speaking the same language. Relationship expert Dr. John Gottman has identified what he calls the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling that are detrimental to a relationship. Being aware of them is the first step to change but then we must also replace them with positive interactions as we seek to understand and communicate effectively. In this blog, I will identify the first two, Criticism and Contempt as well as the antidote for each. Watch for the next blog where I will discuss Defensiveness and Stonewalling and the antidote to each.
So what is Criticism?
Criticism is when we are saying it is our partner, as a person that we do not like instead of the behavior that is bothering us. It is attacking them personally, not the behavior. We may also use a harsh tone of voice which in turn, cause a harsh reaction from them. This, in turn, causes them to become defensive. Instead of criticizing, the antidote is to list a complaint about the specific problem, not the person.
Criticism: You never remember to call me when you’re going to be late. You never think of anyone but yourself. I can never count on you!
Complaint: We agreed to call each other when one of us would be late. I was worried that something may have happened to you. Will you please try to remember to call so I will not be so worried about you?
To learn to voice a complaint vs criticizing, we need to describe the problem as specifically as possible, not stating it is our partner who is the problem. We are also aware of and watch our words and tone-of-voice keeping in mind how it may make our partner feel.
If we slip and fail, as we all do and criticize or start speaking harshly, we can correct this. We can start with an apology for our part and can call for a time-out if things got too heated. We then schedule a time when we are calm and when we can talk uninterrupted to discuss the problem, such as when the kids go to bed or after dinner.
Contempt is when we allow feelings of resentment, disrespect, and hostility to influence our speech. It is speech that is mean, ugly, and hurtful. Contempt can also come out as humorous insults, put-downs, or condemnation. It can happen when unresolved feelings build up because we have been unable to or have not voiced our complaints in a healthy way.
Contempt is not easily resolved. It takes a focused effort to change this type of speech. We can ask ourselves, how will this make my partner feel if I say it this way? This allows us to filter our words before we speak so we can use more positives and imagine how it would feel being said to us.
We can also work on creating a culture of appreciation for our partner. This is where we focus on their positive attributes instead of only the negatives. When we catch ourselves focusing on negatives, we can mentally shout STOP and image a large red stop sign, then start listing all the positive things you love and enjoy about them.
Here are a few more pointers to help your conversations go a little smoother:
• Use an “I” statement to describe your thoughts, feelings, or desires. This looks like "I think", or "I feel" instead of a “You” statement. Making "You" statements will often make our partner more defensive.
• Start your conversation on a positive note. This helps to cut down on arguments by keeping defenses down.
• If you forget to start on a positive note, use a repair attempt such as humor, agreeing with some of their points, or taking a time out.
• Be clear and considerate by listing the specific issue. Remember they are not a mind reader.
• Be considerate by expressing more positives than negatives.
• Reserve your judgment.
• Let them know you are listening by summarizing what they are saying before you respond.
• Be considerate of their feelings when expressing negative.
Remembering these basic communication skills can go a long way to help us resolve important problems and issues so they are not building up and coming out in unproductive and negative ways. Effective communication skills also build our self-confidence and confidence in our relationship. These skills are also great for effective communication in other areas of our lives. Try them!
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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.