Do you repeatedly find yourself in a state of frustration with your husband? I mean, how many hints do you need to drop to get the trash taken out or for the dishes to get done?
It seems like your requests are being deliberately ignored, and before you know it, you’re outraged, slamming the dishes around the kitchen and passive-aggressively hauling the trash out to the curb.
Your husband then shuts down due to your hostile energy and no communication takes place, perpetuating the cycle further. Or worse, the communication that does take place is nothing short of a fit of screaming and less-than-ideal exchanges that leave you both feeling lousy.
Clearly, no one wants to feel this way within a relationship. We want to have healthy, open lines with our spouses to get both our needs met and find a common place of understanding when they fall flat.
The Four Horsemen
Leading clinical psychologist and co-founder of The Gottman Institute, Dr. Julie Gottman, shares her insights on how to navigate these situations and ease the lines of communication before they get tangled.
First, become aware and try to avoid what she calls the Four Horsemen – criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. The Four Horsemen are allusions to the book of Revelation in the Bible, in which the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse represent deception, war, hunger, and death in the end times. According to research, these four pillars of negative communication often lead to a relationship’s demise. What are they exactly?
These four pillars of negative communication often lead to a relationship’s demise.
Criticism: This goes beyond the issue and instead attacks your spouse at the core of their character. This leads to rejection and hurt, which in turn promotes a greater frequency of criticism.
Contempt: Mocking, sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, eye rolling….this pillar is downright mean and arguably the most damaging. It goes beyond criticism and instead assumes a position of moral superiority over your spouse.
Defensiveness: Typically a response to criticism, defensiveness is almost never successful. It shows our spouse we don’t take their concerns seriously and leaves us unable to take responsibility for our mistakes.
Stonewalling: A sign of being psychologically flooded, this is the stage where one or both parties withdraw, shut down, and simply stop responding. This is mostly in response to contempt. This state of overwhelm is clearly a severance to any communication, good or bad, which leaves little hope for resolution.
Complain the Right Way
Instead of resorting to these rather tempting, easy to access escalators when upset with your spouse, take a breath and follow these more productive steps instead. Remember, the key component to effectively communicating your anger is to soften the start of your conversation.
Always Start with I
It may seem simple, yet this strategy holds a lot of power. Owning your frustration without displacing it onto your spouse’s shoulders allows you to approach the situation with full transparency. By not immediately positioning your spouse in a state of defensiveness, you’ll open their ears instead of closing them. An example would be to say something like “I don’t feel heard right now” as opposed to “You never listen to me.” See how the “I statement” leaves room for response, whereas the accusatory “you statement” inserts a wedge within the conversation and invites defensiveness?
The “I statement” leaves room for a response that’s not defensive.
Talk about the Facts
When emotions are running high, it’s easy to rely on low-level communicators like blame, judgment, and criticism which swerve around the facts of the problem and attack your spouse. This clearly accomplishes nothing other than building a larger divide between you both. Remember the point of expressing your frustration in the first place is to find a resolution. The way you present the issue at hand will determine whether that resolution becomes a reality or not.
State What You Need
Often we feel the need to be the problem-solver in every situation. Women especially have a tendency to always want to fix and overfix. Instead, allow yourself to release this control mechanism and be vulnerable. Ask for help and support when you need it. This stage of the conversation is where you work with your spouse to find a solution. Your spouse, no matter how long you’ve been together, still isn’t a mind reader. Being clear about what you need is the only way to give them a fair opportunity to meet your needs, and vice versa.
So what happens if you follow these steps and your spouse still feels attacked, spiraling into the same pattern of outbursts with no resolution? Julie has an answer for this too. First, recognize when it’s happening and avoid being triggered into poor communication. Instead, respond with: “I’m not trying to criticize you or put you down. That’s not what I want to do. I care about you and I really want to be closer to you.” This statement validates your spouse and clarifies your intention. It’s an important disarming method to keep you both on track to finding peace.
As humans wired with intricate emotions, it’s common to fall into the traps of the human experience. In fact, making mistakes is how we learn and can begin taking strides to do better. However, the more we can be proactive and educate ourselves on the benefits of positive communication and recognize negative ones before they arise, the healthier our relationships will become. Communication is the core of all relationship health. From the words that release from our lips to the signals we send with our bodies, it all has a significant impact. Being intentional with them will leave us with far fewer regrets and allow others to feel safe in expressing themselves fully around us too.
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