By Sonya Jensen, Photos courtesy of Sonya Jensen
What makes—or breaks—a relationship? It’s often not differences in background, politics, parenting or even money habits that bust up a couple. What really makes or breaks a relationship is communication. What influences the health of your relationship most is avoiding the “Four Horsemen” of toxic communication dynamics: criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling.
Most couples live in endless loops of trying to get a point across. But how you say something matters way more than what you’re actually saying. Learning the antidotes for the horsemen and structuring your conversations in a healthy way lead to more conflict resolution. To help you on that path, let’s learn exactly what the Four Horsemen are—and their antidotes—so you and your partner can become better communicators.
Starting with “You did this” or “You did that” opens up the rest of the conversation to the other horsemen. Starting with a “you” statement often makes a partner feel attacked and defensive. Instead, try a softened startup:
I feel (choose an emotion) about (talk about what brought on that emotion). I need (share a positively stated need).
Here’s an example:
“Steve, I feel lonely in our relationship. I feel we lack a sense of fun because of our stress levels and jobs. I need for us to sit down this weekend and put some date nights on our calendars.”
Defensiveness is usually brought on by feeling attacked, misunderstood or mischaracterized by our partner. While an understandable reaction to criticism, it makes your partner feel invalidated and hopeless. This can lead to them shutting down or getting louder and more aggressive in order to be heard.
The antidote to defensiveness is accepting responsibility. You can do so both verbally and nonverbally when our partner is sharing their feelings and needs. The important thing is to listen and acknowledge your partner’s feelings first, if they’re the one bringing up the issue, before bringing up your own.
Accepting responsibility looks like nodding your head, asking an open-ended question, saying “okay” and providing a summary to your partner based on what you’re hearing.
Contempt—talking down to your partner or using name-calling—causes long-term damage to the person who hears it and the couple as a whole. Talking down to your partner may sound like, “I would never do this to you” or, “You can’t get anything right, can you?”
The antidote to contempt is talking only about yourself. This means you do not talk to your partner about them and what they should or shouldn’t do. Instead, use the softened startup to tell your partner what you’re feeling and experiencing.
Stonewalling happens because one partner goes cold and puts their walls up to protect themselves during conflict. There’s usually one partner who needs to talk through conflict until a resolution has been reached and another who has to go away and think before coming to a resolution. This leads the person pursuing the conflict to use contempt to get heard and the partner who needs space to withdraw and resort to stonewalling.
The antidote to stonewalling is practicing self-soothing and distracting. Just be sure to give your partner a time frame for coming back to have the much needed conversation.
You can use the softened startup here:
“I feel really overwhelmed. I need to calm down by taking a walk. I’ll be back to talk with you in 30 minutes. If I need more time, I’ll let you know.”
What to do when the Four Horsemen show up in your relationship
Many, if not all, couples employ one or more of the Four Horsemen in their dialogue. Here’s what you can do to shift things to a healthier communication dynamic:
- Try to talk through things before they build up.
- Start every challenging conversation with the softened startup.
- If your partner is bringing up issues with you, go into a place of active listening to understand, instead of just talking back. Afterward, you can summarize what you’ve heard them saying and feeling, then switch to your feelings and perception.
To be clear, conflict is healthy, arguing is not. Healthy conflict means starting every conversation understanding there can be two different sets of emotions and perceptions at play for the same event, and both are valid and worthy of being heard.
We often jump right to active problem-solving or begin with the idea that there’s only one way to look at this situation: mine. But intimacy and closeness develop organically over time, as we show our partner that it’s okay for them to be themselves around us without judgment. Remember, it’s not what you say, but how you say it that matters.