4 Communication Patterns That Can Ruin Your Marriage

marriage communication

When I first got married, I’m pretty sure that everyone and their dog wanted to give me marriage advice. Some advice was practical. Some was silly. And some was just plain wise!

As the advice poured in, I began to notice a simple but common theme: communication. The need to communicate openly, to talk about emotions, to make decisions together, to speak kindly to each other — these and more came up as important needs to address in marriage.

Most people who gave me advice had little to no qualifications (other than being married themselves). But perhaps not surprisingly, research backs up the importance of communication in marriage! A 2014 study found that both how much couples communicate as well as how they communicate can really affect relationship satisfaction.

Through one longitudinal study, Dr. John Gottman found four communication patterns that can be really damaging to a marriage and even lead to divorce. Watch this *short video clip from the Gottman Institute for an intro to them:

1. Criticism

No matter how wonderful your spouse is, you’ll probably always find things you could complain about. Maybe they forgot to take out the trash, maybe they leave their socks on the floor, or maybe they forgot to tell you they’d be home late. Whatever it is, you’ve probably had something come up that rubs you the wrong way.

While complaining isn’t the healthiest of practices, it can be outright damaging when you let it shift into the realm of criticism. In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. Gottman explains that while complaining “focuses on a specific behavior or event,” criticizing “expresses negative feelings or opinions about the other’s character or personality”. A complaint would say, “I’m upset that you didn’t take out the trash like we agreed.” On the other hand, a criticism blows up the issue by making it a personal attack, saying something like, “You never remember to take out the trash! I have to do everything around here.”

So how can we avoid this damaging criticism in our marriages?

The Antidote: Express your needs and feelings using “I” statements.

Instead of criticizing your spouse, try to let him or her know what your needs are. Next time you’re feeling frustrated about the garbage (or anything else, for that matter), say something like, “I’m feeling a little overwhelmed and it would really help if you could take the garbage out. Can we figure out a plan together?” It’s okay to tell your spouse what you need; what’s not okay is turning your frustration into an attack.

2. Contempt

If criticism goes unchecked, it can turn into outright contempt for your spouse. Dr. Gottman says that when issues go unresolved in a marriage, you’re more likely to experience these negative thoughts that have boiled up.

In the garbage example, let’s say your spouse continues to forget to take out the trash. You started out complaining, then criticizing. As the issue isn’t addressed properly, you start to view your spouse differently. When your spouse tries to suggest a solution to the garbage problem, you just laugh and say, “Oh, like that’s going to change things! You’ll never step up and help.” This contemptuous response shows a level of disrespect and a lack of affection.

Clearly, contempt isn’t a healthy communication pattern to have. So what’s the best way to prevent contempt from seeping into our relationship?

The Antidote: Treat each other with respect and show appreciation.

Instead of rolling your eyes or answering sarcastically when your spouse suggests a solution, take a moment to acknowledge his or her efforts. Remember, your spouse is a person too and deserves the same respect you do!

3. Defensiveness

I think most of us are familiar with the deadly horseman of defensiveness. It can be all too easy to respond defensively, especially if we’re feeling belittled or hurt. Being defensive is a natural way to respond to criticism or contempt in an effort to protect ourselves.trash can

In the garbage scenario, a criticism such as, “You never remember to take out the trash!” may be met with a defensive response such as, “Well if you didn’t keep nagging me all the time about it, maybe we wouldn’t have a problem!” Defensiveness only escalates the problem and pushes blame onto your spouse.  

But what can we do instead when we start feeling defensive?

The Antidote: Accept responsibility for your part.

This antidote takes a huge amount of humility. While it doesn’t always seem like it, most problems aren’t caused by just one person. Your spouse may be freaking out too much about the trash, but you can take a deep breath and acknowledge your part in the conflict: “I’m sorry, I should have taken out the trash today. I totally forgot.”

4. Stonewalling

The last of the four horsemen is perhaps the most deadly. After a long time of repeated negative patterns, a partner can get really overwhelmed. In fact, one study shows that damaging communication can lead a partner to become emotionally flooded, leading the partner to try to avoid the conflict altogether. In order to steer clear of a total explosion, the partner may simply withdraw and disengage completely.

If this garbage scenario has been going on for long enough, along with frequent use of the other horsemen in communication, then stonewalling could become a problem. When one partner tries to bring up the issue, the other partner may turn on the TV or just tune out altogether.

While taking a break can be good, stonewalling isolates partners from each other and can get in the way of healthy and positive communication. So how can we overcome stonewalling?

The Antidote: Take a break and cool off, then come back to the conversation.

When a situation gets too emotionally charged, taking a break is a good thing. Let your spouse know you need to calm down a little, but that you do want to figure out how to solve the problem together. Odds are, a break will help both of you.

Your Homework

It turns out that no couple has perfect communication all the time — even those people who gave me marriage advice. But as you look for the four horsemen in your own communication and try to use the antidotes instead, your communication can improve. And better communication really just means a better marriage!

In order to really benefit from what you learned, how about some practice? This week, keep a log of the four horsemen in your marriage. Keeping track of when you fall into those patterns will help you be aware and start to make those changes.

The Family Good Things team would love to hear about your experiences! Comment below to let us know how this homework goes for you.


*Watch the rest of the video here for an explanation of the four horsemen and their antidotes according to the Gottman Institute.


Elizabeth Warner is the content manager for Family Good Things and will graduate in December 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in marriage and family studies. For more articles by Elizabeth, Dr. Rob, or Dr. Tim, check out the rest of our blog and our Facebook page.


How to Know Which Parenting Advice to Believe

With thousands of parenting websites, blogs, and books, it can be hard to know what to believe. Ever wondered what parenting advice you should actually listen to? In this brief video, Dr. Tim talks about five pointers for consuming online parenting advice:


Video Transcript

Welcome to Family Good Things’s first ever video log! We have no idea what we’re doing. In fact, I don’t even know if you would call this a video log, or a vlog, or just a talking head… I don’t know! But we’re going to do it anyways. And what better way to kick this off than to give you advice about seeking advice online — about parenting, family, marriage, and anything else.

So what I’m going to do is I’m going to give you five principles to do (or to avoid, however you want to interpret it) when seeking parenting advice online. I decided to kick this off this way because recently a friend of mine on Facebook asked the parenting question, “My toddler’s doing this and this and this, and how do we get him to stop doing it?” Well, I think it was an honest question, and it was a fair question. A lot of the advice had the same common theme. So. Let’s just start into it.

Principle number one: Popularity isn’t proof.

Just because everybody’s saying that you should do this with your child or this is a good discipline strategy doesn’t necessarily make it healthy, or accurate, or even evidence-based. Now, as Dr. Rob and I both have PhD’s in this, we don’t try to act like we’re smarter than we really are, we do understand the value of research and we do investigate it. So. Just because it’s been shared countless times or it has millions of likes or thousands of likes, or your best friend liked it, shared it, doesn’t mean it’s actually best for your child. Okay?

Principle number two: Education should come before entertainment.

We all like to watch stand-up comedy, cat videos, and anything else that is mind-numbing and is a good break from the day. I love it. I think if you’re seeking parenting advice, it’s okay that you’re entertained by it. However, don’t make that your primary goal, because entertainment is wonderful and good, but it can’t be a replacement for value and usefulness in producing real change in you and your child. So be careful that as you’re seeking parenting advice you don’t simply just become entertained.

Principle number three (I guess that’s six, because three plus three is six) . . .

So principle number three is beware how much misery likes company.

One of the reasons I like to watch Supernanny is because I go, “Oh, at least I’m not as bad as those parents because they’re doing X, Y, and Z and they’re messing up their kids. I’m not that dumb!” One of the reasons we like to seek out certain types of blogs, because maybe it’s a mom or a dad gushing about how much they’ve screwed up. And I think that’s good, we need to be authentic. We need to realize there is no such thing as perfect parents. However, that can become a crutch or a hindrance to our progress and our change in our own parenting — and in our marriage — when we go to those blogs to feel better about doing bad things.

The phrase “misery likes company” is true, because we like to be with people who are angry about the same things, like the same things, have the same struggles, and therefore, we don’t ever evaluate, maybe this is not a healthy attitude, behavior, or belief. So. Mommy blogs are good. We love them. However, don’t go to ones just to make yourself feel better about screwing up and then therefore never changing.

Principle number four: Google can’t change your child, as much as we’d like to think so.

You need to be aware of quick fix strategies. We love Google, because we get instant answers. We love credit cards, we love fast food, we love smart phones. We love all these things because they give us instant gratification. But they’re all replacing, in an artificial and quick way, something that actually takes time, persistence, and patience. A lot of popular parenting advice focuses on getting a child to start acting or stop acting in a particular way. They don’t even question the assumption of maybe the parent’s coming from the wrong premise.

Which is kind of a segway into principle number five, but not yet. Character development is the most important thing we could focus on in our children. Shaping their desires and their character. Why? Because their desires and their character are going to be with them long after we are gone. When they’re with their friends, when they’re at school, when they grow up and move out . . . Their character and their desires will dictate their attitudes and behaviors. So. Google can’t change your child. Beware of quick-fix strategies.

Okay, final principle, number five: Avoid confirmation bias.

Again, we like to look for things that make us comfortable. When we ask questions, like this I think honest seeking mom on Facebook, “My child’s doing this. How do I discipline my toddler?” Sometimes we’re coming from the wrong premise. We’re asking the wrong question. We may not realize that, but we at least need to check our assumptions and not go in. Because if you ask . . . The computers say garbage in garbage out. If you ask a question that has the wrong premise, you’re going to get answers that confirm your premise. I hope that makes sense.

For example, how do I get my child to sleep through the night? They’re age four. Or to stop coming into my bedroom. Maybe there’s a different question we could ask that would help solve the problem more appropriately, even though that’s not a bad question. I think we all want our children to sleep through the night. Nobody wants to be zombies and try to parent when you’re — I’ve tried that before. Doesn’t work too well. Plus my kids don’t really like the *zombie noise* sound that comes out of me when I’m really frustrated and exhausted. So avoid confirmation bias. It’s also very easy to search for stuff that is comfortable and familiar. Don’t reject an idea outright just because it’s not something you’re used to. That being said, you don’t have to accept everything that comes your way through the online blogosphere and social media about parenting.

So, those are the five principles. Now, there’s going to be more to come. Don’t forget to share and like this. Maybe you’re going, “All of your principles undermine you even putting a video online.” I don’t care. I still think it’s good advice. Why? Because it’s me, and I have confirmation bias. Don’t forget to like and share this video. Also, don’t forget to purchase and read and apply Dr. Rob’s eBook which is called “3 Things You Can Do to Create a Ridiculously Happy Marriage.” Ridiculously happy marriage. I have an eBook that will be coming out shortly on father-daughter relationships. Okay, we’ll see you next time.