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Why Communication is Critical
According to an article written by USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism, “Good communication improves clarity in the exchange of concepts, knowledge, and ideas while reducing ambiguity or misunderstanding.” We see this in our professional lives: good communication equals more successful interactions among co-workers and fosters a more positive workplace. But what about communication in personal and romantic relationships?
Communication is often cited as a reason for friction in romantic relationships. Understanding why good communication is essential for a healthy relationship can only improve the quality of the relationship. Learning how to communicate effectively can create a more harmonious connection. “Communicating honestly and transparently can foster a sense of trust and positivity,” (USC) as well as a stronger intimacy between partners.
However, there are many stumbling blocks that couples face in creating healthy communication. Understanding common communication missteps can help raise awareness of our short falls and help us create more constructive understanding between partners.
Common Communication Problems in Relationships and How to Solve Them
In the article, “The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling” by Ellie Lisitsa, written for The Gottman Institute, Lisitsa says that criticism of a partner is the first issue couples need to address. “Criticizing your partner is different than offering a critique or voicing a complaint. The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an ad hominem attack.”
She gives the example:
Complaint: “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.”
Criticism: “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. I don’t believe you are that forgetful, you’re just selfish. You never think of others! You never think of me!” (Lisitsa).
Complaints instead of criticisms
The complaint is a more productive way to ask for what a partner needs and how they are feeling. The criticism doesn’t lead to a change in behavior. Rather, it creates defensiveness and resentment. The criticism impedes communication in the relationship rather than addressing the needs of both partners. Criticism can also chip away at the receiver’s self-esteem and put up unnecessary road blocks that can damage both partners.
Psychologist May Soo offers this advice to helping couples work through being overly critical of one another starting with getting to the root of the criticism. In the above example, fear is at the root of the issue. Talking about that fear is more beneficial than simply offering a criticism. Saying, “I was scared,” though, expresses a vulnerability that may be scary for some, but if both partners can discuss the behavior and the feelings it elicits, the relationship will be stronger. Soo also suggests that the partners address the behavior rather than attacking the person. “Learn to make specific complaints and requests: ’When X happened, I felt Y, I want Z’” (Soo).
Contempt is the second misstep Lisitsa cites. “When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean—we treat others with disrespect, mock them with sarcasm, ridicule, call them names, and mimic or use body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless” (Lisitsa). No one wants to be disrespected especially by an intimate partner, but there are some tips to helping with this type of relationship communication problem.
Being aware is the first step—pay attention to your thoughts, feelings, behaviors—and discover what these are truly about. Focus on this and tell your partner what you are really upset about. This will be a more productive conversation. Contempt doesn’t help change a partner’s behavior. It only serves to weaken the bond between partners. Even when angry, be considerate of the other’s feelings. “Practice holding your partner in warm regard, even when feeling distant or during a fight” (Soo). Expressing appreciation for one another can also help to combat contempt. Some couples try to express this appreciation daily to build a good rapport with one another. Expressing small appreciations when not fighting can help remind couples of those admirations when they are.
Defensiveness can also be a source of relationship communication problems. It is often a response to criticism. “When we feel unjustly accused, we fish for excuses and play the innocent victim so that our partner will back off” (Lisitsa). Often, the attacked partner not only defends themselves (which is a natural response), but reverses blame to make their partner feel at fault. “Instead, a non-defensive response can express acceptance of responsibility, admission of fault, and understanding of your partner’s perspective (Lisitsa).
Active listening can also be a good strategy for more effective communication. Repeat back what you think you heard your partner saying (“So I hear you saying X; is that correct?”) and allow them to respond before immediately becoming defensive. Validate what they are saying (“I appreciate you telling me this and your feelings make sense”). Accept responsibility for what you’ve done wrong and ask how you can better address your partner’s feelings. While this may take some practice, it will enhance your understanding of not only your partner’s feelings, but of your own.
Stonewalling, often is a reaction to contempt, is when a partner withdraws from the conversation and stops responding to their partner. “Unfortunately, stonewalling isn’t easy to stop. It is a result of feeling physiologically flooded, and when we stonewall, we may not even be in a physiological state where we can discuss things rationally” (Lisitsa). Shutting down may have more to do with old wounds rather than new ones so partners must be open in talking about their past hurts to help avoid being emotionally overwhelmed.
Another way to work on stonewalling is to take a break. Tell your partner that you will return to the conversation when you are less angry and assure them that you will talk about the issues, but just not in the moment. “During your time out, do something soothing or calming such as listening to music or reading a magazine. Try taking several slow, deep breaths” (Soo). Also discuss any underlying fears of what may happen if you express your emotions to your partner.
Therapy for Relationship Communication Problems
Couples therapy is great option for those in relationships struggling with communication problems. Various techniques, such as active listening, can help improve communication between partners. Therapy is also a safe space for talking about complex issues and healing old wounds. Sessions can help resolve conflicts and build understanding of one another. Therapy is a sounding board that helps couples focus on their goals for the relationship and learn strategies to help achieve those goals. Couples therapy can help strengthen bonds and work through issues such as finances, family planning and infidelity. Having a space to discuss issues can help couples feel closer to one another and give them the tools to move forward in their relationship.