Despite humans being the most communicative species on the planet, our communication is often fraught with misunderstandings. You have experienced this in your relationship when you find yourself in an escalating argument with your partner that started with a question about what to eat for dinner. Sometimes it feels like these escalating arguments just keep getting more frequent the longer we are with our partner. Ebbs and flows are a natural part of any relationship; however, problems come when we find ourselves stuck in negative cycles with our partner that we just can’t seem to shake.
The Four Horsemen Of Communication
If you take a moment to think about your most recent fight or argument, you will be able to recognize that at some point in that conversation you, or your partner, or both of you began to be flooded with emotion. When emotion takes over, we often revert to actions that will lead to some perceived emotional security. Unfortunately, this action usually takes the form of an unhealthy relational expression. Dr. John Gottman has studied couples for nearly 40 years and through his research has identified four common, yet harmful, actions couples pursue in a relationship. He calls them the four horsemen of the apocalypse and they are as follows: defensiveness, criticism, stonewalling, and contempt.
These four horsemen are relationship killers and predictors of divorce! I’d be willing to bet one or more of those apply to the actions you take when feeling emotionally flooded in a conversation. If so, this doesn’t mean you are a terrible person, or your relationship is doomed. It simply means there is room for growth in your relationship. Let’s break them down and then explore ways to avoid them.
First, defensiveness happens when your walls go up and you begin an all out attack in response to you feeling attacked. This looks like finger pointing and bringing up past hurts. It’s a total deflection and redirect of blame to your partner.
Second, criticism is when a complaint becomes personal. A complaint would be, “I don’t like it when you leave your clothes on the floor.” A criticism is, “You are so selfish and don’t care about anybody but yourself. I don’t understand how you can’t get your clothes into the laundry basket.” Third is stonewalling. This takes place when you physically or emotionally distance yourself and turn off. The phrase, “turning a cold shoulder” applies here. The fourth, and most damaging of the all the horsemen, is contempt. Contempt is when you have a sense of being better than your partner. This can come off through hurtful sarcasm or statements like, “You are such an idiot.”
Take a Break
Alright, we’ve identified common ways we interact when flooded with emotion that can do more harm than good. So what can you do to course correct? As the header of this section implies, you can take a break. Call for a timeout. When you feel yourself becoming flooded with emotion, or sense this is happening in your partner, that is your cue it is time to take a break. Nothing good will come from continuing the conversation in an emotionally flooded state. So just don’t go there.
An important part of taking a break, however, is establishing a consensual timeline of when you will return to the discuss the topic. This could range anywhere from 10 minutes to 24 hours, depending on the intensity of the emotion and importance of the topic. The length of time doesn’t as matter as much as having a specified length of time that both of you are on board with. Using this skill will allow you and your partner to cool down and self-soothe in order to get into a head space where you can continue the conversation without becoming emotionally flooded.
Another skill that can make a big difference in disrupting old and broken communication patterns is the skill of reflecting. This is truly a skill and it takes time and practice to get good at. In the practice of reflecting you are really listening to your partner. So much so that you are able to repeat back, in your own words, what you are hearing your partner say. This is the essence of reflecting. This skill is meant to help you and your partner avoid any misunderstanding. When you repeat back to your partner what you are hearing them say, without you interjecting any sort of your own response to what they’ve said, you give them an opportunity to confirm that you understand them or an opportunity for them to better clarify what they’ve said until you can understand them. Once your partner feels understood, then you can respond to what they’ve said and they now have the chance to listen and reflect until you feel understood.
So, take some time to identify which of the four horsemen pop up for you most frequently. Notice that action as it creeps into your next conversation and intentionally choose a different path. Try applying one of the skills mentioned above, taking a break or reflecting. Remember, these skills take practice. You will not be perfect from the get-go so just keep practicing.