Communication really is key in couples counseling...
“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that is has taken place”
-George Bernard Shaw
The core of most issues that we face in relationships boils down to one thing: communication. Many couples seeking marital counseling or couples counseling simply need some tools and resources to learn to communicate better! Often there is a myth that people seeking couples counseling are about to get divorced or in a terribly bad place. While that can sometimes be true, most of the time, couples counseling can be a way to adjust your communication style and improve and safeguard your relationship. None of us are perfect when it comes to communication and couples counseling can help identify patterns of miscommunication that lead to conflict and teach ways to improve your communication as a couple.
In my work at Quiet Light Counseling, I utilize the Gottman Method of couples therapy. The Gottman method teaches about the “four horsemen” which are communication styles that can predict the likelihood of conflict in a relationship. If any of these patterns sound familiar to you and you are ready to change them, seeking out individual therapy or couples counseling might be a good start as we can explore these (and their remedies) further.
The first of the four horsemen is criticism. Here, we aren’t just talking about a one or two time critique of something your partner did. This is when a pattern of criticizing your partner’s character; criticizing who they are as a person, at the core of their being, becomes the central focus of fights and is pervasive. Of course there are times we are going to be upset with something our partner did, but in the example below watch for the difference between a complaint vs. criticism of the person’s character:
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!” (Ellie Lisitsa- Gottman Relationship Blog)
The second of the four horsemen is contempt. Contempt is very hurtful as it communicates a moral superiority over your partner in the way you speak to them. This could be through mocking, ridicule, eye rolling, sarcasm or just general disrespect. According to Gottman research, contempt is actually the single biggest predictor of divorce, so this is one to really watch out for. One of the biggest ways I see contempt play out in relationships is the comparison of who works harder, who is more tired, who takes on more of the household or childcare burden; these conflicts can easily turn into statements of contempt if not dealt with skillfully. This is especially true when we are tired or burnt-out from work, parenting, or general life stressors.
The third of the four horsemen is defensiveness. Defensiveness is typically our response to criticism and also puts the blame back on our partner, rather than allowing us to take a step back and realize where we may have played a part in the conflict at hand. Although it is easy to become defensive, especially if we’re stuck in a pattern of conflict or stressed, tired, etc. it never helps to de-escalate a conflict when you respond with defensiveness and fail to accept responsibility or see your part in a conflict. Defensiveness also shuts you off from seeing your partner’s perspective on the issue at hand.
The fourth of the four horsemen is stonewalling. Stonewalling is exactly what it sounds like; putting up that stonewall that no one can break through. It is essentially withdrawing, blocking out or stopping any further communication with your partner (usually in response to contempt). When we feel “flooded” by feelings caused by the other horsemen, stonewalling is usually the response to the feeling of being flooded by simply tuning it all out. If your instinct is to stonewall, try taking a short break to calm your nervous system by doing something like walking, reading a book, etc. It is important to remember the larger goal is to return back to the conversation after you are feeling less flooded as this can become a dangerous habit in a relationship.
If you identify with any (or all!) of these four horsemen, it might be time to seek some individual therapy or couples counseling to improve your communication styles. Communication is key in our relationships and it takes hard work to change the styles we have become used to or break the patterns we grew up with. If you need some help with communication in your relationship, give me a call or send an email so we can talk more! I have in-person therapy appointments available in Wilton, CT or via telehealth for couples counseling, martial therapy and individual therapy. The first step to improving your communication is simply asking for help. I am here to help you restore your relationship and strengthen your communication style.