Four Pitfalls in Relationship Communication

Noted researcher and expert in marital therapy, Dr. John Gottman, has worked for years with couples who rate their marriages as happy and satisfying, and those who are unhappy and dissatisfied. In his quest to figure out what differentiates these groups, he found that it primarily boiled down to communication. Quality and effective communication is the foundation of any solid relationship.

Dr. Gottman found four communication styles and attributes that were particularly common, and also at the root of derailing conversation and spinning things into an escalation or utter collapse. These are four pitfalls that you want to be aware of in your own communication with your significant other, or anyone for that matter. These may be easy for you to see in others, but it is critical that you watch for them in yourself since you can only control your side of the communication.


This can take the form of any statement that suggests that there is something globally wrong with your partner, or is a lasting part of their character. It often starts with “you always” or “you never”. Criticism has an attacking and belittling edge to it that is often not well received. This is not to say that you must stifle all issues you have with your partner; you just need a better approach.

Antidote: Dr. Gottman tells us that bringing a complaint to your partner, friend, or family member is just fine. The goal is to complain without suggesting your partner is somehow flawed. Here is how complaints and criticism differ. Complaint: “It bothers me when you don’t put the toilet seat down”. Criticism: “Why can you never put the toilet seat down, you are such an inconsiderate jerk.”


This is when we attempt to defend ourselves from a perceived attack. The problem is that it usually involves denying responsibility for the problem, implying that the other person is the guilty party, rather than both being wrong. One for the act, one for the attack. The other major problem when we feel attacked and get defensive is that we often stop listening. The other person is now a perceived enemy that I must defend myself against. Often we stop listening and prepare a counter attack and wait for an opening to return fire. We are no longer on the same team and we are no longer working together. We are not solving problems together; we are at odds with an opponent.

Antidote: Dr. Gottman suggest that as hard as it may be, we must stay calm, accept responsibility for part of the problem, and later if needed you can address the style in which your partner brought things up, especially if it was harsh and critical.


This is any statement, or nonverbal behavior, that puts you on a higher status than your partner. Mockery is an example, attacking weaknesses and faults, or generally “hitting below the belt”. There is even a universal facial expression of contempt or disgust that conveys a loathing for someone. Contempt is the single most toxic factor in relationships and the highest predictor of divorce.

Antidote: Do your best to develop an environment of praise and pride for each other over time and if emotional frustration builds to a level where contempt is close to coming out, take a time out and walk away from the discussion before you say something you will regret.


This is when people shut down in the conversation. Often because they feel overwhelmed the listener withdraws from the interaction. They may use of silence, avoid eye contact, or physically get up and leave the conversation.

Antidote: With time and practice people can learn to self-soothe, and stay emotionally connected to the conversation. The goal is to learn to tolerate your own emotions, avoid giving up, and hang in there as long as possible.

These are the big four pitfalls to watch for in your own communication with others. Here are a couple more interesting points about these. These four are often occur in this order. One person starts off harsh with criticism, the other person gets defensive, things go back and forth a little bit and as they escalate, people tend to become contemptuous or shut down by stonewalling. Women as a group more often use criticism, where men more often stonewall after having become too emotionally overwhelmed. Criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling occur in happy/stable marriages/relationships, but much less often relative to struggling couples. Additionally, successful repair attempts occur after them to re-stabilize the relationship. Contempt occurred in none of the happy/stable marriages, and was unique to those struggling and unhappy relationships.

If you want to improve your communication and your relationships, please call us now at 763-416-4167, or request an appointment on our website: WWW.IPC-MN.COM so we can sit down with you and complete thorough assessment and help you develop a plan of action that will work for you. Life is too short to be unhappy. Find the peace of mind you deserve.

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