The most informed research on communication is with psychologist John Gottman and his colleagues (Crooks & Baur, 2017). Through several multi-method research studies Gottman and his colleagues built a database focused on married couples. There were a number of communication patterns that were predictive of marital happiness and unhappiness. With this the constructive and destructive communication patterns were developed (Crooks & Baur, 2017). One important discovery the researchers found was how couples who reported arguing occasionally had significantly more relationship satisfaction then couple so avoid arguments. The researchers theorized that when problems were not discussed and resolved then harboring feelings of resentment and frustration built over time therefore driving a wedge between the couple (Crooks & Baur, 2017). However, conflict is needed to help identify issues and help the relationship thrive.
Gottman’s constructive and destructive communication tactics include;
Effective Communication Tactics
- Leveling- stating thoughts and feelings clearly simply and honestly, using “I” language
- Editing- do not say things that we know would be hurtful to our partners rather we limit our comments to relevant information
- Validating- telling our partners we understand how/why they think and feel the way they do
- Volatile Dialogue- Needing conflict to solve issues!!
Destructive Communication Tactics
- Criticism- criticism is different from complaining and should be noted, criticism is when there is a direct expression of contempt that harms the relationship. While complaining can be healthy as it allows for expression of frustration. Criticism involves attacking someone else’s character with “you” statements.
- Contempt- similar to criticism however content degrades the communication between two individuals with intense levels of negativity which include insults, sarcasm and name-calling.
- Defensiveness- this is when a person feels personally attacked are victimized by their partners criticism or contempt.
- Stonewalling- this occurs when there is a refusal to communicate and respond by silence instead of communicating.
- Belligerence- this is confrontational interaction that likely emerges when relationships have prolonged patterns of poor communication. It is often purposely provokes with intention to diminish or challenge of partners right to influence patterns of interactions within the relationship.
Importantly, taking a break during a conflict is NOT stonewalling. Taking a break and coming back to the conflict is healthy. It helps with your self regulation to refocus on what is going on in your own mind and what your partner is saying. I often hear couples that try to take breaks but one partner won’t let the other. This is a pattern of pursing and often out of desperation to have resolution or validation, which can make the withdrawer, withdraw more. Sometimes the withdrawer stonewalls and does not reengage in the conflict. This is not ideal either.
One example of a destructive pattern is when one partner brings up they feel insecure about their body during sex “I want to tell you something that has been bothering me, I do not feel like our sex life is good. (This is likely going to raise defenses in their partner). My body is not the same anymore. I have gained weight since I got hurt in the accident and you just don’t care about me anymore.” The other partner responses with “you’re crazy, your body is fine, you just don’t want to have sex with me, that’s the real reason!” This type of interaction is very dismissive of the partner’s needs. The responding partner could be in the category of belligerent, as it is very confrontational, and defensiveness. The responding partner was not able to level and respond to their partner’s needs.
An example of a constructive interaction of the same scenario is when the partner brings up they feel insecure about their body during sex “I want to tell you something that has been bothering me, I do not feel like I am good enough when we have sex because my body is not the same anymore. I have gained weight since I got hurt in the accident.” This partner uses leveling, “I” statements, and focuses on their needs. The partner responds, “I understand you feel not good enough since the accident”, this is validating the partners needs. “What do you need to feel good enough, or what can I do to help.” In this scenario if either partner misunderstood or misspoke, they are able to have a corrective response with editing.
Crooks, R. L., & Baur, K. (Eds.). (2017). Our Sexuality (13 ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage.