When couples come in for counselling, one of the issues they identify needing help with changing is the way they communicate. Communication is something we do everyday and if asked, a person would usually state that it is something they do pretty well. While getting your message across to another person is the goal of communication, it is vitally
important that we are aware of how we are communicating those messages; are we kind, are we respectful, and are we invested in creating safe spaces to share our feelings. While most of our daily communications follow these aspects, we can sometimes, for different reasons, fall into some habits of communicating that over time, breaks down and destroys the one relationship that brought us joy. Gottman describes these forms of communicating the four horseman.
The first horseman is criticism and is not to be mixed up with a critique or complaint. It is a form of communication that attacks aspects of one's character instead of focusing on a certain behaviour as a critique or complaint would do. For example, when a person voices a complaint they would state that they were scared when you came home late and ask that you call next time so they do not worry. When communicated as a criticism the person would state that you NEVER
think of others and you ALWAYS only think about yourself.
The second horseman is contempt. This type of communication is disrespectful and comes in the forms of mockery, sarcasm, name calling, and eye-rolling. When a person uses this type of communications they are putting themselves in a position of moral superiority.
The third horseman is used in response to criticism and is called defensiveness. When we are defensive we will make excuses for the behaviour/action or play the victim in hopes of making the other person feel guilty of having expectations of us. An example of this would be your partner asking you to call your parents to cancel dinner plans and you forgot. When your partner asks if you had done this, you respond with "you know I had a busy day, why didn't you do it?"
The fourth and final is stonewalling which is seen in response to contempt. When a person is stonewalling they will shut down, withdraw, or walk away and is due to the person in question feeling psychologically flooded. Psychological flooding is when we are so overwhelmed by our physical and emotional feelings that we can no longer think or act rationally.
Even though you may have identified one or more of these types of communication in your relationship, your relationship is not doomed to failure. Identifying these conflict discussions is the first step to changing them into healthy discussions; the second is to seek from a professional.
There is always hope.