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Destructive Communication Patterns and How to Stop Them

The majority of couples seeking marriage counseling identify improving communication as their number one concern. Drs. John and Julie Gottman have been studying couples for the better part of four decades, and have identified numerous issues that contribute to and can predict relationship satisfaction. Much of their research has focused on how couples communicate during conflict. They have identified four destructive communication patterns, named the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which are consistent predictors of divorce. The four horsemen are: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling. The good news is that couples can learn to label these patterns and build in their antidotes.

Today we’ll look at the first of these unhealthy communication patterns, Criticism. The definition of criticism is stating one’s complaints as a defect in their partner’s personality, usually delivering the complaint with judgement and blame. The antidote to Criticism is to use the Gentle Start Up, which is talking about one’s feeling using I-statements, and then expressing a positive need. Underlying every complaint is a hope, wish, or desire, that when stated as a positive need can help the partner to be listened to. 

The structure of the Gentle Start Up is as follows: the partner talks about what s/he feels, then what the feeling is about, described in a neutral, objective and factual manner without blame. Here’s what the antidote looks like:

  • I Feel
  • About What
  • I Need

Here’s a generic example of what Criticism can look like in real time:

Criticism: You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish!

Antidote: I’m feeling left out by our talk tonight. Would you please ask me about my day?

See the difference? The Criticism starts with “You always”, which in itself can get your partner geared towards defensiveness. Try to steer clear of “You always” and “You never”. Following this is a negative trait attribution, labeling the partner as selfish, which again will promote defensiveness and escalate the situation. 

Labeling and stopping destructive communication patterns can be hard to practice on your own. If you need more guidance with improving communication patterns, consider couples therapy with a therapist trained in the Gottman Method.