Traits of Poor Communication in Marriage

The trait that is most closely linked to the success or failure of your marriage is your ability to communicate. Dr. John Gottman is one of the world’s leading experts on marriage. He claims that he often can determine if a couple is on the road to divorce by observing them interact on an issue of conflict. Much of Dr. Gottman’s finding centers around the use of negativity as poor communication. In his excellent book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, he writes about six poor habits of communication that are detrimental to building intimacy and developing healthy communication.

When we examine these poor habits, and recognize that we are making some of the same mistakes, we can take steps to improve how we communicate with our spouses. Here are the dynamics behind Dr. Gottman’s habits of poor communication in my own words.

1. Harsh Start Ups: Harsh start ups happen when we begin conversations with our spouse with criticism, accusations, or questions that put the other person on the defensive before healthy communication can take place. Example: When his wife steps into the house, a husband’s first words are: “Why didn’t you deposit that check like you said you were going to do today? I just got a text alert from the bank that said our checking account is overdrawn. What were you thinking?”

2. The Four Horsemen: Dr. Gottman claims that certain types of negativity are more lethal to your relationship. His four horsemen of marital communication apocalypse are:

  1. Criticism: Complaints are normal but criticism deals more with your spouse’s character and personality. Examples: “You’re an idiot,” “You’re such a narcissist,” “You have no sense of humor.”
  2. Contempt: This results from long simmering negative thoughts about your partner that turn into disrespect. Contempt often arises from little, and at times legitimate, concerns about a spouse that are never addressed or go unresolved over long periods of time.
  3. Defensiveness: We all have a self-protection instinct. But, becoming defensive with your spouse rarely helps to resolve conflict and typically reduces the conversation into a blame game.
  4. Stonewalling: This is a tactic typically seen in a spouse who doesn’t want to yield any ground in a conversation. This spouse eventually tunes the other out. Men are frequently the culprit here. It’s not unusual for a man to withdraw (sometimes physically) to his cave, cutting off communication for a time.

3. Flooding: This happens when you or your spouse bombards the communication with negativity whether it is in the form of criticism, contempt, defensiveness or any other negative approach. Some people would call consistent nagging a form of flooding. 

4. Body Language: Communication experts tell us that good communication is more about body language than actual words. One spouse can shut down the other by sending the clear message by their body language that they aren’t interested, are bored, angry, or have quit listening. Examples: Crossed arms, angry glares (despite tone of voice), blank stare, rolling eyes, lack of eye contact, turning one’s back to their spouse.

5. Failed Repair Attempts: A repair attempt is when a couple puts the brakes on the tension in the relationship and deescalates the conversation. Obviously there are times with intense communication where a couple needs to take a timeout. In a relationship that isn’t working, a failed repair attempt doesn’t work at decreasing the tension or lowering the stress level. Constant failed repair attempts are like a stress fracture that just keeps getting worse. 

6. Bad Memories: When a couple is consumed with negativity it not only affects their past but it can place danger on their future. In almost all cases there are very good and happy memories in every relationship but if things are too negative that they can’t remember the good times, the relationship is deteriorating.

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Jim Burns

Jim Burns

Jim Burns is the President of HomeWord and the Executive Director of the HomeWord Center for Youth and Family at Azusa Pacific University. Jim speaks to thousands of people around the world each year. He has close to 2 million resources in print in 30 languages. He primarily writes and speaks on the values of HomeWord which are: Strong Marriages, Confident Parents, Empowered Kids, and Healthy Leaders. Some of his most popular books are: Confident Parenting, The Purity Code, Creating an Intimate Marriage and Closer. Jim and his wife, Cathy live Southern California and have three grown daughters, Christy, Rebecca and Heidi.

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