Effective and ineffective communication in a relationship

Do you ever get into an argument with your partner or spouse? Your parents?

What do these arguments look like?  Does all %*&@ break loose or do the two of you calmly and respectfully describe how you feel while working towards a solution that works for both of you?

If you are the latter, you can likely skip the rest of this article and start your own relationship blog! If you are the former or somewhere between the two, please read on.

Most of us aren’t relationship saints but…

Unless you are the exception, and have the halo to prove it (!!), it is highly probable that you aren’t always at your best in an argument. Who hasn’t felt hurt, frustrated, or angry and lashed out and hurt back or shut down?  Who hasn’t at one time or another dug in their heels? Who hasn’t refused to apologize for their (toxic) behaviour or forgive the one who has disappointed us, dismissed us, or said mean things to us?

The more important question is whether this is a pattern or communication style?  Dr. John Gottman, marriage therapist and researcher, has found that that it is not the degree of conflict that predicts the success or failure of a relationship. It is, instead, how we handle the conflict. It is not how much we fight, but how we fight.  There are 4 communication styles (killers) Gottman has identified as destructive: criticism, defensiveness, contempt or stonewalling. They are so destructive that Gottman has dubbed them the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.

Managing your communication

Gottman is very clear that conflict is natural and normal in a relationship (not just marriages). He also states that you can’t always resolve conflict. This is in part because we have different personalities and do not always share the same values. We can however, learn to manage it:

  • Be on the lookout for a sign that any or all of the “horsemen” have arrived.
  • Make a commitment to respond to one another with “antidotes and repair attempts.” These antidotes and repair attempts are the way to effectively communicate both feelings and needs but also avoid escalation of conflict.
  • Take responsibility for the antidotes and repair attempts—whether you are the one that dished it out or were at the receiving end. No finger pointing is allowed.
  • Understand that you cannot make this commitment for another person. All you can do is focus on what you are willing to change to both foster and model healthy communication.

Are you chomping at the bit to know more about these relationship killers and their “antidotes and repair attempts”? The communication killers and antidotes are relevant for all our our relationships. The examples below are between an adult son or daughter and their parent.


Communication killers (Toxic behaviour)Antidotes and repair attempts (Improving communication)
Criticism:his is when we either imply or state outright that the person has a character or personality flaw. Example: “You always…” “You never…” “You are so selfish.  You never think about all I have to do in a day.”Complain about specific behaviour, use “I” statements and express a positive need, complain without blame, or turn a complaint into a request (ahem, remember that requests are not demands!).Example: “I am feeling pretty frazzled right now. Can we talk about my day?”
Defensiveness: this is when we try to protect ourselves or defend our innocence (this can be done by counter-attacking, righteous indignation, or by whining).Example: “Did you call  and make an appointment to have the furnace checked?Defensive answer: “No, and you knew I wouldn’t. Why didn’t you just call instead of waiting to come down on me?”  Gottman describes defensiveness as another way of blaming.Accept responsibility even if for only a small part of the problem. Search for the way(s) in which the complaint is true (what Gottman calls the 2% truth).Example: “No I didn’t. I’m sorry. It is such a hard thing for me to do given how rude they were to me last time.  I should have asked you to do it when we first talked about it. I will call right now and leave a message.”
Contempt: this is when we put someone down using sarcasm, ridicule, or mimicking.Example: “You are tired. Really? You are retired and have more time on your hands than me. When did you get up? 10 o’clock? I have been up since 5 a.m. I swear you are worse than my kids.”Describe your own feelings and needs (not the other person’s) and create an atmosphere of respect and appreciation (respect is given, not earned).Example: “I am feeling tired as well. I understand that we are all doing the best we can. You have worked hard all your life. You have earned the right to sleep in. ”
Stonewalling:  this is when we emotionally withdraw from the interaction and close ourselves off from the other person but physically stay in the room.“Flooding” often precedes stonewalling. In the context of relationship conflict, flooding is when your heart rate goes up to 80-100 beats per minute which means that you cannot process (we go into fight, flight, or freeze mode).Self-soothe in order to stay connected in the interaction.To do this, stop the discussion and call a time out. Let the person know that you need to take a break. It takes at least 20 minutes for your body to reset. Read a magazine. Take a walk or run. Do something that is soothing and distracting.Example: “I’m feeling too upset to continue right now. Can we please take a break and talk again in 20 minutes?”

I think these “antidotes and repair attempts” are relevant for all of our important relationships. What do you think?

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