Chances are if you’re reading this, you have hit a snag in communication with your partner. It is not uncommon for couples to get caught in circular arguments that leave both parties feeling frustrated. The more you try to explain your side, the more your partner does so, too. And this fuels both of you to reiterate your points over and over again in a never-ending cycle. When this becomes a game of who will win, both of you lose. Romantic relationships require equal footing to thrive. When one party feels undermined, the bonds between them weaken. Fortunately, communication traps like these are no reason for despair. You are hardly alone. Even the healthiest relationships experience conflict.
The 4 Horsemen of Communication Traps
If you are familiar with the tale of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelations, then you will know how conquest, war, hunger and death caused the end of times. Dr. John Gottman, a leading clinical psychologist and expert in couples therapy, applied this metaphor to communication traps between couples. Using over four decades of research, he replaced the biblical horsemen with criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling to draw parallels with how these communication patterns cause the end of committed relationships. Fortunately, he also provided antidotes for each horseman. Dr. Gottman suggests that the longevity of bonds between two people does not depend on the conflict itself, but on how you manage it. With the help of a trained therapist, couples engaged in conflict can heal wounds and prevent their relationship from going over the cliff.
Horseman #1: Criticism
You didn’t put the toilet seat down again! Why are you so inconsiderate and lazy when I have asked you to do this so many times?
A complaint constitutes giving feedback for change and improvement. Criticism is an attack on a person’s character. In the heat of the moment, when feelings of outrage take over, we forget the line that divides the two. Eroding your partner’s self-esteem will not result in the change you seek. Instead, it will trigger an automatic dysregulated flight, fight and freeze response. Your partner will go into self-preservation mode which shuts down empathy and the ability to see your perspective. In no time, the criticism contagion will set in, and you will get drawn into vicious communication traps without productive outcomes.
If you are unhappy about something in your relationship, it is important to voice it. But how you share your concern counts. First, you need to manage your own emotions. Check-in with yourself and take a pause if you are seeing red. Next, take a moment to reflect on what you need from your partner. Anger often masks feelings of hurt and unmet needs. Naming your feelings will tame the intensity of the emotions, and allow you to ask for what you need with a gentle opening. You can be direct about your complaint, but do not make your partner the “bad guy.” Start your statements with “I” rather than “you” and try to foster emotional safety in your communication. This will decrease your partner’s defensiveness and prevent you from falling into the trap of the Ist Horseman.
Horseman #2: Contempt
You spend so much money on clothes when we are barely getting by. Just look at yourself! They do nothing for you.”
Contempt is the worst of the 4 Horsemen. Dr. Gottman considers it the leading predictor of divorce in couples. Contempt includes mean-spirited ridicule, disrespect, condescension, mockery, name-calling and even disgust to cruelly attack your partner at the core. You direct the full force of your repulsion on their character, and not towards the offending action, which is the crux of the problem.
In the above example, the problem is clearly overspending. However, any behaviour change this partner expects will be impossible to achieve because he/ she has not focused on the problem, itself. Instead, they chose to drag the spotlight on how undesirable they find the other person. This is a sure-fire way of escalating the conflict to a dangerous level. Contempt annihilates all possibilities of resolution and you might find yourself at the receiving end of it, too. After all, you cannot expect cooperation, let alone reconciliation, from someone you find so disgusting, especially when conveyed with condescending superiority!
If you find contempt causing communication traps in your relationship, then take this bull firmly by the horns to throw it out. You require both short-term and long-term antidotes. For starters, focus on managing your own emotions and needs as described above, so you can express yourself kindly using “I” sentences. Doing so will set you on the right path, in the short term. However, your relationship requires a heavy injection of fondness and admiration to survive, long-term.
Fondness & Admiration
Fondness allows you to show affection with your words, body language and actions. It tells your partner you “like” them. This does not necessarily require grand gestures. Rather, it’s about small, but genuine, expressions of affection like a warm smile, or a kiss before heading out for the day. Admiration is best understood as respect and warm approval of your partner. It requires noticing the small things they do and expressing gratitude for them, as well as recognizing them for the intrinsic qualities that make them special.
Unfortunately, implementing and fostering a culture of fondness and admiration will not come naturally to couples who have remained trapped in contemptuous communication patterns for a long time. If you are both committed to healing your relationship, then engaging the services of a couple’s therapist will help immensely. You require both perseverance and techniques custom tailored to work for your styles and personalities. And your therapist can help you with strategies that will work for you, one small step at a time.
Horseman #3: Defensiveness
Complaint: Could you put your dishes straight in the dishwasher and not leave them in the sink?
Response: Can’t you see how busy I am? You always nag me about these small things. If it’s that important, go do it yourself!
Defensiveness is a mode of self-protection that brings out indignation and even victimhood to confront an attack. In doing so, you neglect taking responsibility for your actions and end up blaming others. When you construe criticism as blame, your defensive stance becomes the problem and a barrier to the fruitful resolution of a problem. It can be particularly distressing to a partner who may be trying very hard to give criticism constructively. Your defensiveness can lead to unhelpful communication traps. Worse still, it can make your partner feel so dejected that they start walking on eggshells. Relationships should be easier than this. And the antidote to Horseman #3 is relatively straightforward. Whenever possible, take responsibility for your actions.
Replace the response above with “Gosh, I am so sorry! I’ve been so busy and distracted. Thanks for the reminder.” And, the problem becomes a non-issue. With it, you acknowledge your partner’s need, take responsibility and express gratitude. These are all the ingredients of a loving and healthy relationship.
However, acknowledging our flaws this gracefully is easier said than done! Defensive people often don’t realize they get this way. And when someone points it out, they respond with more defensiveness! Untangling such communication traps with a professional is often the best way out of them. A trained therapist can help you dissect and get through typical scenarios that cause you to trip up with Horseman #3.
Horseman #4: Stonewalling
If your partner has stonewalled you by turning silent, withdrawing or closing themselves off from an argument, you will know just how frustrating this behaviour pattern is. However, you should also understand that the most likely reason why stonewallers behave this way is that they are overwhelmed with anxiety and experiencing the effects of an increased heart rate and elevated stress hormones. Many will simply not know what to say without making things worse. So, shutting down is often the only thing they can do.
While you should stop the argument at this stage, it will be unhelpful to do so by throwing your arms up and walk away in frustration, yourself. Dealing with Horseman #4 requires a two-step antidote. First, you should stop the argument, respectfully. Both of you need to agree, in advance, to a signal that indicates a time out. It can be a word or gesture that honours the need for a break that is at least 20 minutes long. Secondly, this is when the anxious party should engage in self-soothing techniques to bring elevated anxiety symptoms under control. Regular deep breathing, mindfulness and meditation can help build resistance to ward off anxiety. The time-out will allow both of you to reset your emotions and the tone of the discussion to hopefully steer it in a constructive direction.
Practicing deep breathing, mindfulness and meditation can help build your reliance to ward off anxiety. A few sessions with a trained therapist is often enough to prop you up with the right techniques.
Working with a Couple’s Therapist
Couples’ therapists receive extensive training drawn from decades of proven research into what makes relationships work. This specialized knowledge allows them to understand relationship dynamics with far more insight than laypersons. Unfortunately, unhappy couples often rely on the advice of family and friends who may be least equipped to understand relationships from a psychological perspective. Consequently, many end up in repetitive and exhausting conflict cycles that rarely lead to a resolution. And they wait far too long after problems begin to pursue therapy.
A well-trained couples therapist can help you get to the root cause of the problem. The skills you will gain from therapy sessions will allow you to conduct yourself better going forward with improved self-awareness and communication.
About The Author
is a managing director at Beaches Therapy Group, serving clients for over 10 years. We have helped hundreds of couples reinvent their communication styles to find love in each other, once again. Let’s have a discussion about how our therapy sessions are a worthwhile investment towards happy and healthy relationships.