Healthy communication in marriage is a skill. You learn to talk freely. You learn how to stay in difficult conversations. You learn to talk in a way that brings your partner close. You learn to reconnect in how you express frustrations.
This is part one of a four-part series — Four communication styles that will cripple your marriage.
You become better at communicating. Not perfect — better.
Basketball players improve their jump shots.
Singers improve their breathing techniques.
Dancers improve their aerobic conditioning.
Running backs improve their awareness.
To get better, there’s a necessity to work on hard things. It’s the same for your relationship. Good communication comes with noticing what needs to improve, and starting the process of fine-tuning it.
Couples in happy marriages aren’t born great communicators. It takes practice. You won’t reach perfection, but you can get better.
Difficult topics or everyday conversations, there are communication styles that are so divisive in relationships that John Gottman has coined them The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Informed by his research, he predicts these styles can lead to marital breakdown, even divorce.
The four horsemen are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.
Your complaints should address a specific behavior or incident.
You want your complaints to involve a specific request for change. For example, “We agreed to talk before buying anything over $300. I’m upset you didn’t do that. Could you please follow through on our agreement, next time?”
Direct. Specific. Effective.
Conversely, criticism is an attack on your partner’s character. It’s a complaint on steroids.
Thinking negative about your partner, rather than the behavior you’re upset about, gives birth to criticism. For example, “You’re always inconsiderate. You spent more than the amount we agreed on. You’re selfish, and I’m sick of it.”
Saying “you always” or “you never” goes beyond voicing a complaint. You’re implying your partner has a personality flaw, and he or she is the problem.
The negative impact of criticism can’t be understated. Your partner will feel assaulted. And your criticism does hurt him or her. It’s an unhealthy way to verbalize a legitimate grievance.
Criticism builds walls that disconnect. Voicing a legitimate complaint is an opportunity for the relationship to grow. Here is another example of a criticism and a complaint.
Criticism: “I really can’t believe how rude you are, I took time off work to take you to lunch. You never say thank you. I’m not surprised, you only think about yourself.”
You have a legitimate reason to be upset.
Complaint: “I felt unappreciated today. I took off work to treat you to lunch. Saying “thank you” would have made me feel like you appreciated it. Hearing you say the words “thank you” is a big deal to me.”
Okay. I get it. Criticism isn’t helpful. How do I avoid it?
Relationships don’t start off with chronic criticism. It’s a negative communication style that develops over time.
Keeping a record of your partner’s mistakes, or holding in anger until it turns into deep-seated resentment, is how it starts.
Searching for what he or she gets wrong, results in a litany of complaints on steroids — criticism.
Underneath your criticism is a wish, a desire, a change you need to feel loved, and connected with your partner. And that is where you focus your approach.
Not on him or her — but on your need. Using the above example, you may need words of appreciation to feel close. Hearing “thank you” communicates you have a partner that appreciates your efforts, and appreciates you.
A complaints addresses that need directly. And positively. And in a way that your partner hears you. The problem with criticism is your message gets lost in the delivery.
The delivery sabotages the goal of feeling loved through words of appreciation. Complain without attacking. If your partner feels attacked, he or she will withdraw.
Address how you feel. Address the specific situation. Request change.
“It embarrasses me (how you feel) when you make jokes about my mom in front of our friends (situation specific). I know she can be a bit much, but I would like to keep that between us (what you need).
Avoiding criticism isn’t about holding back complaints. In fact, that would result in resentment that leads to (more) criticism. It’s constructive to fully express your complaints in a way that doesn’t hurt your partner, or damage the relationship.
Criticism builds walls. Fully expressed specific complaints improves communication in your relationship leading to a healthier marriage.
My next post will be on the second of the four horsemen, contempt.