Oftentimes, relationships last in what people call “the honeymoon stage” for 6 months to a year (in my experience). When the excitement wears off however, the relationship can often turn sour rather quickly.
As an undergrad that double majored in Psychology and Communication, I spent a good deal of time studying relationships, and the ways individuals communicate to effectively (or in many cases, ineffectively) get their messages across to their partner. One of the most monumental researchers I learned about in school, Dr. John Gottman, has been of particular interest to me both within the realm of academia and in my own personal experiences or observations of others. Dr. Gottman has an approach to describe communication styles that can predict the end of a relationship. According to his research, there are four telling communication patterns that, when combined, lend themselves to what he calls the “Apocalypse of” the relationship.
Let’s look more closely at these 4 patterns:
Criticism is not the same thing as simply voicing a complaint. It is a personal attack that is not necessarily specific to a thing/behavior that your partner has done, or a mistake that they’ve made. Criticism of this sort involves dismantling your partner at their core, aggressively speaking to their character, or personality as a whole.
Contempt is an extremely volatile way of speaking to someone you care about. People that speak with contempt mock their partners, ridicule them, call them names, mimick them, eye-roll, or display other degrading body language to make their point. When people speak with contempt, they undermine any efforts they have previously made with their partner to show respect. Contempt is the ultimate way to degrade a person, thereby bringing their spirits down. Believe it or not, couples that are contemptuous of each other are more likely to experience illness as a result of a lowered immune system. So not only is contempt emotionally painful, but it also doubles as a hazard to your health. According to Gottman’s research, contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce in a relationship. If you are experiencing contempt in a relationship, it is important to recognize this pattern and communicate to your partner about the danger of continuing to argue in this way. If the contempt continues for much longer, it can only further erode at the relationship and wither any chances for improvement.
It’s safe to say that we’ve all been defensive at some point in our lives. However, this begins to be a problem when you are confronted with a form of defensiveness any time you try to voice your frustration, make a complaint, or describe your feelings about something. When people make excuses for their behavior, they are unwilling to take responsibility for something they may have been able to handle better. They are not validating their partner’s concerns or emotions, and find a way to turn the tables and blame them instead. Defensiveness is a roadblock for making progress. No progress can ever be made when someone is not willing to admit there was a problem that could have been avoided or diminished, and therefore not open to making changes for a better result in the future.
Last but not least is stonewalling. This phenomenon occurs when one partner decides to suddenly withdraw from the interaction. They shut down and close themselves off from the other partner. They refuse to answer or respond to anything that is said to them. It is as if a stone wall is standing between the couple. Obviously, this is not an effective way to communicate, as it disallows the couple to engage in a conversation that is validating and effective to fixing the problems at hand.
Why am I bringing this up? When we notice that a relationship is starting to veer off course and go downhill, we often panic and scramble to fix things at all costs. Our desperate attempt to ameliorate our issues immediately may result in worse problems. Patterns don’t fix themselves over night. Big changes take time, patience, and persistence. But, if you are able to notice negative relationship patterns ahead of time (and possibly before they become damaging enough), you may still have time to stop them in their tracks. Being knowledgeable and informed about these styles of communicating can help you when you’re confronted with a difficult situation and just want to feel heard. The most important thing to remember is to speak to others the way you would want to be spoken to. It may sound intuitive, be we often forget about this simple notion when we are in the heat of the moment. Have respect for people, and show your respect through your actions and behaviors. Thinking before you speak can only ever result in a better interaction. If you work on your patience, and will power to refrain from saying hurtful things while feeling worked up, you will notice your relationships drastically improving over time.
Words can be like daggers. You can really hurt a person by the things you choose to say. Some words leave scars, which may take a very long time to heal. Before leaving those scars on another, take a moment to consider whether your word choice is carefully selected, accurately portrays how you feel about someone, and is what you are trying to say. Will your message come across effectively? Do you think you will be heard? Will you be deliberately hurting someone in speaking your mind? There are many things to consider, and often not a lot of time to do so. So be careful what you choose to say. Your diction and delivery are everything.