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Research-Based Strategies To Improve Communication with Your Partner


Sept. 19, 2020

Would you believe that infidelity is not the leading cause of divorce today. Neither is domestic violence!
Dr. Shirley Glass’ timeless research found that the main reason married couples cite for divorcing these days is finding it impossible to communicate.
Yes, communication in relationships is one of the most important factors in both healthy and unhealthy relationships.
Dr. John Gottman’s four decades of research on couples, also mentioned in his book titled “ Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work ”, found that criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling are huge predictors of relationship meltdown and are significant predictors of divorce.
Dr. Gottman refers to these four dynamics as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
When a partner uses any one of these four horsemen while trying to communicate with their significant other, there is no ability to constructively manage conflict.
The four horsemen
It is perfectly fine for a partner to make a complaint to their partner . Yet being critical or contemptuous is not ok.
A complaint focuses on a specific behavior, while criticism attacks the other person’s personality or character, and this is not ok.
Critical statements frequently include the words “always” or “never.” Criticism frequently begins with “You are …”.
There is no such thing as constructive criticism because it is still criticism, and criticism is never constructive. Women are more frequently guilty of this horseman.
Contempt involves statements that come from a position of superiority and are condescending to the partner.
It is attacking the partner’s sense of self with an intent to insult or psychologically abuse the partner. It is an assault on the partner’s character.
Think of it as criticism on steroids or criticism plus belligerence. It also involves sarcasm, name-calling, and body language, such as eye-rolling.
Women are also more frequently guilty of this horseman, and it is the greatest predictor of divorce.
Defensiveness arises from the perceived need for self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood to ward off a perceived attack.
Many people become defensive when they are being criticized or feel contempt from their partner.
Defensiveness is a way of distancing the self and a way to change the topic or reverse the direction of the blame. Defensiveness is a way of blaming your partner and not owning a behavior.
Stonewalling occurs when one partner emotionally or physically withdraws from the interaction to avoid conflict in efforts to convey disapproval, distance, and separation .
The partner emotionally leaves the conversation (gives the cold shoulder) or physically leaves the room, which leaves the other partner feeling abandoned and alone with the problem.
Men are more frequently guilty of this horseman.
Stonewalling often follows flooding. Flooding is the negative physiological intensity one feels during a conflict.
It’s the pounding heart, sweaty palms, dry mouth, dreadful feeling, headache, stomach ache, tight muscles, etc.
It’s the same as that physiological arousal you feel after a near-miss car accident or when you got in trouble at school and was called down to the principal’s office.
When the body senses it may be in danger, either psychologically or physiologically, the adrenal gland secretes the stress hormone, cortisol, into the bloodstream.
When flooding occurs, effective and open communication in a relationship is nearly impossible as the cortisol affects a person’s ability to listen effectively and make good decisions.
Here is the good news, there are strategies to improve communication in your relationship.
Each of the four horsemen has an antidote that will help each partner stay away from being critical, contemptuous, defensive, or engaging in stonewalling and improve relationship communication.
Strategies to improve communication
To avoid criticism
For building healthy communication in relationships and avoiding criticism, use a gentle or soft startup.
It is much more productive to talk about your feelings using “I” statements to express how you feel when a specific event happens and what you need.
Consider using this template to avoid criticism:
I feel (list ONE feeling, NOT a thought)
when I (talk about the event, not the partner’s behavior).
I need or want (name what you need or want).
Consider this very harsh startup: “Honey, you are just inconsiderate; you always leave the toilet seat up.” A good soft startup that follows the template above looks like this:
“I feel unheard
when I see the toilet seat left up.
I do need for the toilet seat to be down”.
Here are a few tips and strategies to improve communication when using gentle startups:
Avoid the word “you” at all costs. It is blaming and finger-pointing. Do not use the words “always” or “never” as they are critical words. Saying, “I feel that” is always a thought, not a feeling. Shorter sentences are easier for the speaker and better for the listener. Do not use blanket feeling words such as frustrated or upset. For example, the word upset doesn’t tell anyone what the feeling is, leading him or her to be upset. Is he or she upset because of anger? Is she or he upset because of sadness?
Then it becomes the other partner’s turn to respond. He or she can use this template:
It makes sense to me that you feel (use synonym – a different word to describe the feeling word that was used) because I felt that way when (name a time when you felt that way OUTSIDE of the relationship).
In keeping with the toilet seat discussion, here is an example from the responder:
It makes sense that you feel unimportant because I have felt that way when my boss hasn’t listened to what I have to say in meetings.
The responder needs to listen carefully and then use a different word (synonym) to describe the speaker’s feelings.
The speaker doesn’t need a parrot. The partner needs to know the listener got it. This also stops listeners from wheel-spinning (not listening to what the speaker is saying because they are crafting their comeback in their head).
The responder then talks about when he or she felt that way outside of the relationship to further show the partner that he or she understands.
The antidote for contempt
Build a culture of appreciation, fondness, and admiration. This is fairly easy to do when you are mindful of it, intentional about it, and remember that it is the little things that matter .
You don’t have to buy your partner a diamond tennis bracelet; try offering her a foot rub. He or she will appreciate it.
Put a candy bar under your partner’s pillow or a cute homemade card on their car’s seat.
Essentially these strategies to improve communication allow each partner to remind themselves of their partner’s positive qualities and their gratitude for positive actions.
The antidote for defensiveness
Take responsibility. When a partner is late for dinner, they need to simply own it and not blame the secretary, traffic, construction, or the rain.
Offering an apology for any wrongdoing will reduce defensiveness and make the conversation more productive.
The antidote for stonewalling
Physiological self-soothing . This means taking a break from conflict and spending that time doing something soothing and distracting.
The rule of thumb is that a partner gets to take one minute per year old he or she is. So a 50-year-old client gets to take a 50 minute time out.
It is important to focus on doing what soothes you during the 50 minutes, such as deep breathing, reading a chapter in a book, going for a run, etc.
Alcohol intake, substance use, and/or driving are never advisable when someone is flooded.
The key aspect of these strategies to improve communication is to come back to the discussion after the time out and resume managing or solving the problem.
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