“What did you say?!” Responding to destructive communication traps

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Frequent and open communication is the first line of defense against misunderstandings and hurt feelings in your relationships. The research on healthy relationships has identified four communication patterns that most often create long term relationship problems. The first and most common communication traps are criticism, which is blaming and verbally attacking your partner’s personality, and defensiveness, which is a counter attack to a perceived criticism (essentially saying “I’m not wrong, you’re wrong”). The next two, and arguably the most damaging, are contempt and stonewalling (shutting down/disengaging) (Gottman & Silver, 1999). Couples get into trouble because they tend to escalate emotional reactions rather than provide support or problem solve. The best way to combat these patterns is to slow down, try to understand, and practice acting rather than reacting.

The skill to combat criticism and contempt is to try to think about what you feel and what you need. It is much easier to hear “I’m feeling lonely and need more support” rather than “you never spend any time with me”. This may be very challenging and hard to say at first, but it gets easier with practice.  As a team with your partner it is helpful to ask questions and try to understand rather than immediately be defensive. Understanding (or at minimum an attempt at understanding) creates intimacy and de-escalates conflict.

When emotions become too overwhelming and you start to shut down, it is completely appropriate to take a break and calm down. Sometimes the most important way to manage emotional reactions is to be proactive. Take care of yourself and your relationship by spending time with hobbies and friends that you enjoy, relaxing, meditating, exercising, eating right, and getting enough sleep. If you are having serious emotional difficulties, do not feel ashamed to talk to a therapist who can help you through these challenges. While the above skills can be helpful in improving your communication skills and managing your emotions, a therapist can help identify feelings, unpack painful feelings from your past, and guide you through changes on your healing journey.

Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Crown.

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