By Don Smith, L.P.C., Grace Counseling Center LLC –
What do our words communicate? There are times when I find myself using words that fail to express my intentions or thoughts. For example, suppose I was walking with my friend on a rough path in the woods and she trips on a tree root causing her to fall to the ground. If I ask “Are you okay?” My friend may respond, “Yes, I will be okay” or “No, I think I turned my ankle.” Or my friend may ask “Do I look okay?” This last response is the one I want to discuss, because it does make sense. As I was making an attempt to share my concern, I asked a question that disregarded the obvious. Of course my friend was not okay! Perhaps a better question would have been, “How can I help you?” Or “Are you injured?”
Let’s consider other ways we may disregard the obvious with our communication. Couples often express a need to improve communication. I often use a method, developed by John and Julie Gottman, referred to as the Four Horsemen. The Gottmans have chosen this label to describe the four main pitfalls that affect most couples, Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling.
Criticism expresses the way we complain about each other. When addressing a concern with a partner, we often begin with the word “YOU” to level the criticism toward our partner. This usually results in the other partner feeling attacked. For example, “You left your dirty clothes on the floor again.” “You forgot to pay the bill.” “You forgot about the plans for Saturday.”
Defensiveness is often a response in reaction to the criticism. Usually when we get defensive, we seek to blame others or shift the blame away from ourselves. Sometimes, we go on the offense to tell the partner who has criticized us about their faults. This may lead to a back and forth of personal attacks and the real issue may get lost in the battle.
Contempt expresses the lack of respect for the partner. When respect is not present in the relationship, then one partner may seek to control the other partner. Sometimes the control may appear as physical, verbal or emotional abuse. Sometimes the control may be seen in manipulation and deception. Contempt cuts away at the very heart of the trust in the relationship.
Stonewalling expresses a desire to choose to disengage the partner. Some examples may be walking away from a discussion disrespectfully or giving the partner the “silent treatment” after feeling offended or hurt. One partner may choose to ignore the other or pretend to not hear what the other partner is saying. This is basically the “cold war” approach to conflict and fails to invite the partner to work on solutions or compromise.
The healthy response to the Four Horsemen seeks to improve communication and create healthy interaction between partners. If partners will work to avoid the use of the term “YOU” when addressing a concern with their partner, then the partner may be able to hear the real issue and respond without defensiveness. Couples are encouraged to use “I” messages to convey concerns with their partner. The idea behind the “I” message is to be able to express the feeling by saying, “I Feel _______”, because” ( describe the concern or issue without attacking or using the “YOU” term.) Research has proven that if we work at reducing the Criticism and Defensiveness, then healthy communication and interaction are possible between partners. As partners are willing to share their needs and expectations with each other without the intimidation or lack of respect, then each partner is able to hear and listen to the concerns, hopes and dreams of the other. As communication begins to grow, then trust will build and each partner will become open to the other.
Here’s the Warning Label. This is not a quick fix and it takes a lot of work and full commitment from both partners. Some partners may need assistance from a professional counselor to help them get started.
Don Smith is a Licensed Professional Counselor with Grace Counseling. Don has worked with couple and family counseling for over 30 years. He enjoys the insights discovered by the use of the Gottman method for working with partners. You may view Don’s profile at www.gracecounselingllc.com.