When my boyfriend and I first showed up for couples therapy, our therapist called us “weird.”
He explained that most couples didn’t come to him when things were great; they came when their relationship was on the brink of ending; that the distance between them became so big, they had no idea what to do to fix it.
But as someone who writes about dating, relationships, and breakups for a living, I know how important skills are like communication for a healthy relationship. And luckily, I have a partner who understands that value, too.
The fact is that a lot of relationships and marriages end because of poor communication. We come to a relationship with needs, boundaries, and expectations, yet we talk about them in all the wrong ways or, worse, not at all.
Researcher and psychologist John Gottman found from decades of studying relationships that four communication habits specifically create distance between couples. Over time, and without acknowledging them, they can be the ultimate demise of their relationship.
Assuming that you don’t want your relationship to crumble from poor communication, let’s talk about those four habits that Gottman uncovered.
Could you imagine that every time your friend was upset with you, they took a jab at your personality? Or job? Or the way you do things?
While you care for them and want to come to a solution, it wouldn’t feel good hearing them say that. You’d want to focus on the issue at hand, not sit there and feel attacked for who you are.
That’s how criticism works. When a problem comes up, it’s turned into a commentary about how your partner is flawed. What’s scarier is that most people have no idea they’re even doing it.
Let’s take a typical relationship issue as an example: the dishes.
You ask your partner to clean the dishes, yet you come into the kitchen later that night and see them still in the sink. You comment, “You never help around the house! You don’t respect my time!”
A common indicator of criticism is the words “always” and “never.” They’re what many people call absolute words. Saying your partner always acts a certain way is an attack on their character and doesn’t explain your point.
Left uncheck, criticism can become more frequent and a go-to way to hurt each other during arguments.
Often, as a result of criticism, defensiveness comes into play. When someone feels attacked, they feel the need to defend themselves. This can look like shifting the blame and refusing to accept responsibility.
Circling back to the dishes scenario, if the other partner responded to their partner’s criticism with, “That’s not true! You always forget to do the dishes, too!” then, again, no one is getting to the real problem.
When someone feels attacked or ashamed, their go-to move is to make that uncomfortable feeling go away. While there are reasons behind why someone becomes defensive, it’s still damaging for relationships.
Once the cycle of criticism, defensiveness and more criticism begins, it’s hard to get out of. While an argument might feel like the time to bring up things you’re having issues with, it’s better to focus on one problem at a time.
If you’re wondering whether one of these habits is worse than the other, then wonder no more. Contempt reigns supreme when it comes to habits that can be the downfall of your relationship.
So what is contempt? It’s criticism on steroids. Contempt is behaviors you do laced with disrespect, meanness, and, at worst, emotional abuse.
Habits that are considered contempt include:
- Mocking your partner
- Rolling your eyes
- Using a condescending tone
Contempt might seem innocent, but it’s rude. It creates a sense of superiority with one partner over the other. It’s a clear signal to your partner that you become their worst enemy when things turn sour.
Which is not how a relationship should be. Ever.
Respect and love for your partner are crucial. Even in moments where you’re both heated, you need to make sure to keep those things intact. If not, you can slowly kiss the love and trust in your relationship goodbye.
The last of the four unhealthy communication habits is stonewalling. And I can say, as someone who once dated an avid stonewaller, it doesn’t feel good to be in a relationship with someone who does this.
Whenever my ex and I would get into a fight, he’d withdraw from the relationship completely. And I’m not talking about a simple silent treatment; I mean not talk to me at all — and even block my number — for at least a week.
As someone who is anxiously attached, it would shatter my world.
Stonewalling is a defense mechanism where someone closes off from their partner. It can be the silent treatment, abruptly walking away, or even more minor gestures like folding your arms and avoiding eye contact.
This slowly makes the issues you have in your relationship worse because nothing is ever solved. The problem becomes trying to get your partner to talk with you again rather than solve the initial reason the argument began.
While it’s OK to need a moment to breathe and collect your thoughts, you have to communicate that to your partner. Otherwise, you’re telling them that you don’t respect them enough to talk and that won’t fare well for your relationship.
Relationships might seem complicated, but for those who research them, they’re more simple than we think. When standing on the outside, the reason couples have such bad communication is quickly summed up into four habits.
Now that you have that information, you can prevent your relationship from being damaged by them. Think of healthy communication like glue; without it, it will be hard to keep your relationship together.