Fun fact: The longest marriage in recorded history lasted 86 years and 290 days. It was between Herbert Fisher and Zelmyra Fisher, who were married in North Carolina on May 13, 1924.

What was their secret? “Respect, support, and communicate with each other,” the couple said in a Twitter Q&A on Valentine’s Day 2010.

As a clinical counsellor specializing in supporting men with relationship issues, I often hear from guys who have trouble with the third pillar of the Fishers’ record-setting union: healthy communication.

What does healthy communication look like?

This essential part of any intimate relationship may be best defined as being able to express your thoughts and feelings with others while feeling heard and respected.

This doesn’t mean that healthy communication avoids conflict. On the contrary, conflict is a sign of a healthy relationship when it focuses on finding compromises and common ground and accepting differences while acknowledging what each partner appreciates and enjoys about the other.

When conflict turns sour, however, the “Four Horsemen” rear their ugly heads…

What does unhealthy communication look like?

couple arguing at table

American psychologist Dr. John Gottman developed the “Four Horsemen”. These signal unhealthy communication is setting in and that a relationship may be in trouble. They are:

1. Criticism

Criticizing your partner’s character is different from voicing complaints about specific issues. These example reactions highlight that difference:

Complaint: “I’m annoyed that you didn’t call to tell me you’re running late.”

Criticism: “You always say you forgot to call, but you’re just selfish.”

The second reaction can feel like an assault and often leads to feelings of anger, shame and rejection on the receiving end. Worse, criticism can cause partners to fall into an escalating pattern where the first horseman reappears with increasing intensity and frequency. This can eventually lead to Horseman No. 2…

2. Contempt

Contempt-filled communication is just plain mean. It’s marked by disrespect, ridicule, sarcasm, name-calling, and mocking body language such as eye-rolling and scoffing. This causes the recipient to experience a sense of being looked down upon and devalued.

Unlike critical attacks on a partner’s character, contempt assumes a stance of moral superiority. Here’s an example: “You say you’re exhausted? Spare me! I’ve been taking care of the kids all day, but when you get home, all you do is plop down on the couch and play mindless video games.”

Negative thoughts about a partner fuel contempt; once expressed, they can leave that person feeling despised and worthless. 

3. Defensiveness

When we feel that we are being accused and criticized unfairly, our instinct is to search for justifications and position ourselves as innocent victims, hoping that our partners will change their tune.

The trouble is that this often communicates that we’re not taking our partners’ concerns seriously and avoiding taking responsibility for our mistakes. For example: 

Question: “Why didn’t you call my parents to let them know we can’t make it to dinner? You promised you would!”

Defensive response: “You know I had an extremely busy day. Why didn’t you do it?”

While it’s reasonable to defend yourself when feeling stressed and under attack, it’s crucial to recognize that this method seldom produces the intended outcome. The defensive stance usually worsens the conflict, especially if the partner expressing criticism doesn’t yield or offer an apology. This is because defensiveness shifts blame onto your partner, hurting the chances of resolution.

4. Stonewalling

Withdrawing from conflict and shutting down the lines of communication is a typical response to contempt. Instead of addressing the challenges within a relationship, partners who stonewall tend to resort to avoidance tactics such as disengaging, looking away and appearing preoccupied.

It takes considerable time for the negative impact caused by the first three destructive behaviours to accumulate to the point where stonewalling seems like a viable “escape” route. Once this point is reached, however, stonewalling often evolves into an ingrained behaviour pattern.

Tips for sending the Horsemen packing

Identifying any or all of the Horsemen in your interactions with your partner is a crucial first step to eliminating them and replacing them with the healthy forms of communication explored here:

Goodbye criticism, hello fulfilment

Expressing your concerns without finding fault means avoiding the word “you,” which can suggest blame. Instead, try communicating using “I” statements that constructively articulate your needs.

Instead of the previous example of criticism—“You always say you forgot to call, but you’re just selfish”—go with something like this: “I’m feeling left out of the loop, and I need to vent. Can we please talk about my concerns?”

In other words, communicate two things—what you feel and what you need—and then respectfully ask to fulfill those needs. This avoids blame and criticism and can prevent the discussion from escalating into an argument.

Goodbye contempt, hello appreciation and respect

Regularly expressing appreciation, gratitude, affection, and respect for your partner is the best way to kick contempt out of a relationship. This fosters a positive outlook that serves as a protective shield against negative emotions. The greater your sense of positivity, the lower the likelihood of experiencing or displaying contempt.

As well as identifying the Four Horseman, Dr. Gottman came up with a “magic ratio” of positive to negative interactions required for relationship success. The ratio states that maintaining five or more positive interactions for each negative one builds emotional well-being, maintains a healthy relationship balance, and kicks contempt to the curb.

Goodbye defensiveness, hello responsibility

Taking responsibility for part of a conflict can prevent it from escalating. In the case of the previous example, this means taking responsibility for forgetting or overlooking a call to the in-laws: “You’re right; I should have called. From now on, I’ll let you know when I’m too busy to help with dinner arrangements.”

Goodbye stonewalling, hello self-soothing

If stonewalling is setting in, call a timeout. Something like: “I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by all this. Can you give me 20 minutes, and then we can talk?”

Failing to take a break can make stonewalling worse. It can also cause partners to bottle up their emotions, which can lead to an emotional explosion that helps no one.

Time-outs should last at least 20 minutes, as this is the timeframe required for your body and mind to relax. You can use this time to engage in relaxing activities such as listening to music, reading, or exercising. 

You can also try rescheduling the conversation. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it might be better to share that with your partner and then agree on a date and time that works for both of you to resume the conversation.

The benefits of healthy communication

couple laughing together on a couch

There’s truth in the old adage that we hurt the ones we love. In my professional experience, most relationship conflicts arise because partners care about each other. That’s why the benefits of healthy communication are so powerful: 

  • Feeling connected to your partner. As clinical psychologist Dr. Sue Johnson says, “Belonging leads to becoming.” People are biologically wired to connect and be friendly with others as social beings. Doing this in a positive, loving way that avoids feelings of isolation is enormously rewarding and comforting.  
  • Being safe and comfortable with someone we trust implicitly. 
  • Expressing needs, desires, feelings and thoughts to another person and having them met and reciprocated.

Need help with healthy communication? 

If you’re interested in developing healthier communication skills, I encourage you to give counselling a try. It can help to have someone to talk to who has an understanding of the issues you’re facing and the techniques to help you overcome them or change them. The Canadian Men’s Health Foundation’s MindFit Toolkit is a great resource that can help provide resources, information and counselling services to improve your mental health.

Have you found an effective way to deal with relationship conflicts? Share your tips in the comments below!

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