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  • Joseanne Spiteri

How to Repair Poor Communication in your Relationship- Antidotes to the Four Horsemen

One of the most common reasons couples seek therapy is to improve their communication.


Last week, we learned about the 4 destructive communication styles that have been proven to harm relationships. (If you’d like to read more about the Four Horsemen, please review the How to Destroy Your Marriage blog post). The following are some concrete ways to change your destructive communication styles.


1. Criticism is complaining to your partner in a way that attacks their character or personality.


Antidote: When something is upsetting you, you need to be able to express your feelings in such a way that uses what Gottman refers to as a Gentle Start-up. Be soft with your complaint, without judgement or blame. Address his/her behavior rather than his/ her character. Determine what it is you need and ask for that in a clear and tactful manner. You may want to start with “I feel” or “I need” statements. Here is a useful algorithm to keep in mind the next time you would like to make a complaint. “When x happened, I felt Y, I need Z”. Where X=behavior, Y=feeling, and Z=what you want.


2. Defensiveness occurs often in response to criticism. Often this is accomplished via counterattacking.


Antidote: Naturally, most of us would want to protect ourselves when we perceive we are being criticized. First, check that what you heard is what your partner meant to say. It is possible that you may have jumped to conclusions and misread the situation. Accept at least some responsibility. Do not reply with complete denial and try to find some truth to their complaint. Last, determine what you can learn from this and attempt to address the problem. What does your partner need or want you to do?


3. Stonewalling occurs when you withdraw or disengage from the interaction.


Antidote: If you need time to cool off, then take that time! (Grown-ups can take time outs too). However, you must communicate that need to your partner and also reassure them that you will be returning to the conversation when you are ready. This does not mean you are off the hook and can avoid the topic altogether forevermore. Further, try not to ruminate on the argument while in time-out. Ensure you are doing something that will calm you down (i.e. go for a walk or listen to music). When you are no longer feeling emotionally overwhelmed, it is time to re-engage with your partner.


4. Contempt is the most harmful to a relationship and occurs when you attack your partner with the intention to insult or psychologically harm.


Antidote: Make a pact with yourself that you will not insult, name-call, mock, or use sarcasm towards your partner. Be respectful at all times. Reflect on your thoughts, behaviors and feelings and determine what is upsetting you. Be specific about your wants and needs rather than focusing on your partner’s faults. Replace thoughts that place you in a “one-up” position to thoughts of appreciation towards your partner. Finally, express appreciation towards your partner often.


Every couple argues, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, if the four horsemen are taking up permanent residence in your relationship, it has very high likelihood of failing. You may now realize that you and your partner need to make changes in how you communicate with one another. This can be easier said than done. If you are having trouble implementing these antidotes, or would like to learn more about positive communication strategies, I would recommend seeking the help of a couple’s therapist. It’s never too late to create and implement healthier communication skills in your relationship. Your relationship is worth it!


Contact me on joseanne@georgetowncouplestherapy.com to take action and improve how you communicate with your partner.