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4 Communication Styles that Lead to Failed Relationships

Written By: Leah Liu, Registered Clinical Counsellor

Recall your previous failed attempts at communicating. Are any of the following phrases familiar?

  1. “Why do you always do this? You just don’t care!”
  2. “Why can’t you be more responsible/thoughtful/mature?”
  3. “I was too busy/tired and you should have known that. Why didn’t you just do it?”
  4. Partner A: “Don’t you think we should…?”

Partner B: (Looks down, avoids eye contact) 

Partner A: “Are you listening to me? Hello?” 

Partner B: (No response)

In his book, The seven principles for making marriage work (2015), relationship expert, Dr. John Gottman describes the above four negative communication styles as The four horsemen of the apocalypse: (1) criticism, (2) contempt, (3) defensiveness, and (4) stonewalling. 

Let’s take a closer look at each one.

      1.Criticism

It is common that you have some complaints about your partner. However, criticism is not the same as complaints. Complaints focus on a specific event or behaviour while criticism focuses on your partner’s character or personality. 

Let’s review the above example of criticism, “Why do you always do this? You just don’t care!” 

How can you shift this criticism into a complaint? 

Here’s a good example, “I feel angry about you not washing the dishes again when we had an agreement to take turns to do the dishes. I need you to take responsibility and do your part consistently without me having to remind you.” 

As you can see, you focus on one specific concern rather than your partner’s character. The structure is: “I feel… about (what)… and I need…”. 

      2.Contempt

Contempt is the worst of the four horsemen, and it is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. For instance, sarcasm, eye-rolling, sneering, and mockery are types of contempt. In short, contempt conveys a message that you are better than your partner and moreover, there’s something shamefully wrong with them.

Let’s review the above example of contempt, “Why can’t you be more responsible/thoughtful/

mature?”

How can you change contempt into something softer and more effective? 

You can say, “It is very important for me to keep the kitchen clean. I know we might have different standards on cleanliness, but I’d appreciate if you could you please just keep the general kitchen area tidy?” 

The principle is to treat your partner with respect and appreciation. 

      3.Defensiveness

It is understandable that you want to protect yourself when you feel attacked by your partner. However, defensiveness is a way of protecting yourself by blaming your partner, which is not necessary and could be avoided. 

When you defend yourself, you are conveying the message that it is not your fault but your partner’s. Defensiveness does not resolve the problem. 

The antidote to defensiveness is to accept your responsibility even if it is only a small part of the conflict. 

Regarding the above example, “I was too busy/tired and you should have known that. Why didn’t you just do it?” 

A suggested statement could be, “Sorry, I forgot. I was too busy/tired. I should have asked you to take care of it. But no worries, I’ll do it now.”

      4.Stonewalling

Usually, stonewalling shows up later in a relationship than the other three horsemen. Stonewalling happens when you or your partner feels flooded and shuts down. 

Even though the stonewaller hears the message, they act as though they aren’t listening and moreover, they couldn’t care less about what their partner is saying. They may become silent, have no eye contact, turn away, or act busy.

In reality, stonewalling is an extreme way of self-protection by shutting down a conversation that doesn’t feel safe. Stonewalling becomes more automatic over time and increases with a pattern of feeling overwhelmed in arguments.  

The antidote to stonewalling is to self-soothe in order to stay emotionally connected to your partner. 

Once you are aware that you or your partner are feeling flooded, stop the communication and take a time out. Do something that relaxes you. Take 5 deep slow breaths. Walk outside and look at nature. Listen to soothing music. Watch a silly Tik Tok video. Just do something that brings you back to your rationale mind and calmed self. Then continue the conversation. 

Practicing these new habits is hard. But what is harder is building and perpetuating a conflictual and unhappy relationship. Make these changes today and your relationship will improve for good.

To get more support in your relationship, contact us at Brentwood Counselling Centre to see how we can help.

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Brentwood Counselling Centre

For over 20 years, Brentwood Counselling Centre has been offering counselling and therapy services for individuals, couples, relationships, marriages, families, and groups, serving clients from Burnaby, Vancouver, North Vancouver, New Westminster, Coquitlam, Surrey, and beyond.

All therapists at Brentwood Counselling Centre have extensive education and training in their areas of practice. Furthermore, they are all registered for clinical practice in BC and adhere to the strictest ethical guidelines as set out by their corresponding governing body.

For more information about our therapists and their areas of practice, please email our office at info@brentwoodcounselling.com. Or click here to view our therapists’ profile, contact them directly, and request an appointment.