November 6, 2022

How to Foster Healthy Communication in Relationships

Juliana Gutierrez

Sometimes when we feel upset or hurt in our relationships it can be difficult to talk about our differences in a healthy manner that allows for repair. In his research, psychologist John Gottman studied thousands of couples over the years and identified the relational habits that successfully “disarm conflicting verbal communication, increase intimacy, respect, and affection” and promote a “heightened sense of empathy and understanding.” 

The Four Horsemen Gottman Method

According to Gottman, there are four main negative communication patterns in relationships that escalate conflict: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. Fortunately, each of these can be replaced with an antidote or positive interaction that can help couples build stronger relationships and healthier ways to navigate challenges.  

Keep reading to learn to identify each of these habits and how to replace them with healthy strategies!

  1. Criticism 

What is it? 

  • We verbally attack our partner’s personality or character
  • Harsh, blaming, or hurtful expressions of judgment or disapproval
  • Example: 
  • “This kitchen is a mess. You’re such a slob.”
  • “You always talk about yourself! You never care about what I have to say!”

*Antidote: Gentle Startup

  • Use a warm body language and tone of voice and “I” statements to express your feelings and needs in a positive way (What do I feel? What do I need?)
  • Offer a critique or voice a complaint about something that bothers you
  • Example 1:
  • Rather than saying: “This kitchen is a mess. You’re such a slob.” (Criticism)
  • We can instead say: “I feel frustrated when dirty dishes are left in the sink. Could you please do the dishes tonight?” (Complaint)
  • Example 2: 
  • Rather than saying: “You never think about how your behavior affects others. You’re so selfish.” (Criticism)
  • We can instead say: “I was scared when you were running late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.” (Complaint)
  1. Contempt

What is it? 

  • We treat our partner with disrespect, mock them with sarcasm, ridicule, call them names or insults, mimic or use body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing 
  • Showing anger, disgust, or hostility or acting superior to our partner
  • Example: 
  • “You’re ‘tired?’ Cry me a river. I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do when you come home from work is flop down on that sofa like a child.” 

*Antidote: Share Fondness & Admiration

  • Practice actively showing each other respect and appreciation, and seeking positive qualities in each other
  • Recognize your partner’s strengths, give them compliments and show them affection
  • Example: 
  • Rather than saying: “You forgot to load the dishwasher again? You are so incredibly lazy. Rolls eyes*” (Contempt)
  • We can instead say: “I understand that you’ve been busy lately, but could you please remember to load the dishwasher when I work late? I would really appreciate that.”

  1. Defensiveness

What is it? 

  • Deflecting responsibility for your own mistakes and behaviors by fishing for excuses or refusing to accept feedback
  • Example: 
  • Question: “Did you call Betty and Ralph to let them know that we’re not coming tonight as you promised?”
  • Defensive response: “I was just too darn busy today. As a matter of fact, you know just how busy I was. Why didn’t you just do it yourself?”

*Antidote: Take Responsibility

  • Offer a non-defensive response, own up to your mistakes, apologize and use feedback as an opportunity to improve
  • Example:
  • “Oops, I forgot. I should have asked you this morning to do it because I knew my day would be packed. That was my bad. I’ll call them right now.” 

  1. Stonewalling 

What is it? 

  • The listener becomes overwhelmed and withdraws from the interaction, shuts down, and stops responding altogether

*Antidote: Self-Soothing

  • If you feel like you’re stonewalling stop the discussion and ask your partner to take a little break  
  • Take 20 minutes to do something alone that soothes you— read, take a walk, go for a run— and then return to the conversation once you feel ready
  • Example: 
  • “Honey, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I’m feeling overwhelmed, and I need to take a break. Can you give me twenty minutes and then we can talk?”

Thanks for tuning in; we hope you found this information useful!  

Make sure to check out our mindfulness blog if you are interested in learning about some strategies for soothing and grounding yourself in the present moment. 

References:

Lisitsa, Ellie. “The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, & Stonewalling.” The 

Gottman Institute, 16 June 2022, https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/. 

Lisitsa, Ellie. “The Four Horsemen: The Antidotes.” The Gottman Institute, 16 June 2022, 

https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-the-antidotes/. 

Therapist Aid. “The Four Horsemen & Their Antidotes.” TherapistAid.com, 2021, 

https://www.therapistaid.com/worksheets/four-horsemen.pdf.  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jules is Psychology Intern under the Agape House at the Thaddeus Resource Center. She is a senior student at Claremont Mckenna College majoring in Psychology. She eventually hopes to obtain a PsyD in Clinical Psychology and practice trauma-informed therapy. In her free time, she enjoys singing with her acappella group, dancing Reggaeton, writing poetry, and eating cheese.