The Four Signs Your Relationship Will Sink or Swim
Relationships are like sailing. You share beautiful experiences and adventures with your partner, charting your course through life, keeping your relationship afloat. However, just like sailing, relationships also involve hard work, difficult conversations, problem-solving and get hit by big storms sometimes. There is no single set of criteria to identify a healthy relationship, but there are signs that show when a relationship is heading into stormy waters. John Gottman, a divorce researcher and founder of The Gottman Institute, identified four communication styles that can sink a relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Gottman even calls these communications styles “the Four Horsemen.” Like the biblical horsemen of the apocalypse, when criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling appear, the end times might be near (for your relationship, the world is probably safe). By identifying these communication styles, you can recognize the behaviors that might risk sinking your relationship and begin to chart a new course towards healing and respect. Here is a rundown on these four dangerous communication styles, along with healthier methods of communication that can replace them.
Everybody complains, and sometimes you might have to complain about your partner and their behavior. You might feel bad that they have a habit of getting home late, or you might critique the language that they use while angry. You might tell your partner that you’re not feeling sexually satisfied or emotionally cared for. It is normal to be upset by specific behaviors or issues. It is also normal to express these emotions through complaining or critiquing.
Criticizing your partner is different from complaining about something that frustrates you. Criticism attacks your partner’s character. It doesn’t say, “sometimes, this one thing that you do upsets me.” Instead, it says, “you are a bad person, you try and make me feel bad when you behave this way.” When you criticize with absolute statements, you shut down the conversation: “you always get home late; you don’t want to see me! You don’t care about me!” These statements imply that your partner is intentionally harmful or is a bad person by nature. Labeling someone this way closes off the opportunity to find solutions and understand the source of your negative emotions.
Criticism is the first weight that can sink your relationship, and it is the most common. When you communicate your needs instead of criticizing your partner, you will learn to throw off this weight together. Instead of “you never help me at home, you’re lazy and don't care about me,” you can say, “I feel like I’m the one doing chores every night, and it’s a lot of work. I need you to help me with this, please.” Starting with your feelings and avoiding blame gives you room to understand one another. Maybe your partner also feels like they are overwhelmed and busy; perhaps they do not realize you are feeling so exasperated. When you communicate your needs, you can work together to come up with a plan to help one another: making a schedule, finding time to check in with each other, working through behaviors that make you feel bad. Every relationship has its arguments; a healthy relationship finds solutions together.
Defensiveness is a lot like criticism. When you criticize, you attack your partner to express your frustrations. When you are defensive, you come up with excuses and shift blame to avoid difficult conversations.
Imagine your partner says, “I feel like I’m the one making dinner every night, and it’s a lot of work. Can you help me make dinner more often?” You get defensive and respond, “You know I’m super busy, and you’re used to making dinner; you've never complained about it before!" When you speak this way, you tell your partner to blame themselves for their feelings. You take no responsibility for your role in the relationship.
You can fight defensiveness by taking responsibility and checking your behavior. Instead of, “I’m super busy, you never complained about this before,” you can say, “You’re right, I got caught up in my stuff and I didn’t think about helping you. Let’s schedule some time when I can help out each day.”
You should always consider your partner’s feelings, especially when they are upset. Pay attention to your body language and your responses when you talk. Look at your partner when they speak; nod along to confirm that you’re listing. Responsibility starts with listening to your partner and considering their complaints. There’s no shame in admitting when there is a problem and working towards a solution.
Criticism and defensiveness are two sides of the same coin. They are barriers to communication, and they can spiral out of control. Failing to overcome criticism and defensiveness leads to worse behavior. When you steer into choppy waters, these communication strategies will keep you from charting a new course, and risk leading your relationship into worse storms.
Contempt is the most toxic behavior of Gottman’s four horsemen. It is explicitly disrespectful. Criticism attacks a person's character, but contempt indicates that they are small, meaningless, and beneath you. If you tell your partner you aren’t feeling sexually satisfied, a contemptuous response would be: “I’m not sexually satisfying you? Well, the things that turn you on are disgusting. You should just like normal stuff. You’re lucky I have sex with you at all.”
Contemptuous behaviors like eye-rolling, sarcastic comments, and name-calling are all correlated with high rates of divorce. This kind of behavior can become abusive, and exposure to it can weaken your immune system and make you physically sick.
Responding to contempt can be difficult because it is so emotionally and psychologically harmful. It is best to begin slowly and start by addressing your emotions. Talk about your feelings, and avoid blaming or accusing your partner: “I’m not feeling sexually satisfied, can we talk and find a way to enjoy our time in the bedroom together?” Being honest about your feelings is the first step, but it takes more to overcome contempt. When you begin communicating your emotions, you can work towards building respect and vulnerability with your partner. Reflect on the happiest moments of your relationship. Create routines of affection: holding hands, asking about your partner’s day, saying “I love you” before leaving the house. When you build vulnerability and respect, you will both become invested in the relationship. You will remember your happiest moments, and work as a team to strengthen your bond with one another.
Stonewalling is when you or your partner withdraw from discussion, refusing to listen or engage with any conversation. Many people learn to stonewall after experiencing criticism, defensiveness, and contempt for a long time. Stonewalling is a survival strategy against this negativity, but it can also damage relationships, even healthy ones that don’t have contempt or criticism. When you ignore your partner, you are refusing to acknowledge their feelings, their concerns, and their personhood. Misunderstanding transforms into anger, and unsolved problems only get worse.
If your partner is stonewalling, it indicates that they are overwhelmed by stress. Pushing the issue will not help when they cannot respond, but you shouldn't give up on communicating altogether. Recognize when your partner is too overwhelmed to keep talking and discuss how you should respond so that they feel safe. Come up with simple signals - words, gestures, or phrases - that they can use to say, “I need to calm down, I’m getting too emotional.” These might be as simple as saying, "pause," or holding up their hands in the air. When you and your partner both feel safe, it will keep your conversation going.
If you find yourself stonewalling, you can use these signals to say that you need to take a break. Take twenty or thirty minutes doing something that calms you down. Find techniques to connect with your body, such as breathing exercises or meditation. You can write in a notebook, draw, or make tea. Enjoy something that will calm you down without distracting you from the conversation you were having. Once you feel calm, you can continue the discussion with your partner.
Gottman reports that happy relationships balance positive and negative interactions with the “magic ratio”: 5 positive interactions for every negative interaction. When you recognize these four negative communication strategies and respond with positive behaviors - active listening, expressing affection, apologizing when you are wrong - your relationships will swim, rather than sink.
Are you struggling with any of the four horsemen in your relationship? Do you think that counseling could help you and your partner? Reach out today for a free 20-minute session. I look forward to talking with you!