Common Couples Issues: Faulty Communication Styles

Common Couples Issues: Faulty Communication Styles

I was recently asked about frequent topics discussed in couples counseling, and without batting an eye my answer was The Four Horsemen. World renowned relationship therapist and researcher, Dr. John Gottman uses the title “The Four Horsemen” to describe the four communication styles that can be detrimental for couples.

Before The Four Horsemen are introduced, take a moment to think about your relationship and/or relationships you have observed. What damaging behaviors are present? How are conflicts handled? Are most interactions positive, negative or neutral? Based on your own knowledge and before I give it away, take a guess as to what The Four Horsemen are and how they are defined.

The Four Horsemen

Criticism: verbally attacking partner’s character/personality; passing severe judgement; excessive focus on partner’s perceived faults/mistakes.

If criticism is present, you may feel: unappreciated, not “good enough”, unworthy.

Contempt: attacking partner’s sense-of-self with the intention to harm/psychologically abuse; hostile humor; name-calling; negative body language such as eye-rolling.  According to Dr. Gottman, presence of contempt is the #1 predictor of divorce.

If contempt is present, you may feel: worthless, unworthy, frightened, disgusted.

Defensiveness: reversing blame/counterattacking; making excuses/denying responsibility; explaining rather than accepting; denying partner’s experience.

If defensiveness is present, you may feel: powerless/as though there is a battle-for-power in the relationship, unheard.

Stonewalling: withdrawing; “cold shoulder”; silent treatment to convey disapproval/punish; avoiding conflict.

If stonewalling is present, you may feel: ignored and disregarded.

Are one or more of these dangerous communication styles present in a relationship that is meaningful to you? Are you experiencing increased anxiety or depression, and/or changes in appetite/sleep patterns related to untreated relationship distress? Please know that you are not alone, and the relationship is not doomed. Each of the four horsemen has an antidote that can be learned and used to combat it. Are you ready and willing to battle these horsemen?

Stay tuned in the coming weeks as we take the time to study these horsemen and reveal the antidotes!

Cara Nicholson, MA, LPC

Cara Nicholson, MA, is a Licensed Professional Counselor at Olive Branch Counseling Associates, Inc. She works with individuals, couples, families, and adolescents.



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