Secure attachment is one of the most basic needs of babies, children, friends, partners and family. Strong relationships between partners, families and friends are crucial to our mental health, safety and wellbeing. Sometimes we can have great difficulties relating to the most important and significant people in our lives which makes us feel insecure and unhappy.
This is where couples counselling comes in. In my practice I treat each partner equally with a “no blame” focus and help the couple learn how to effectively communicate and recognise their own contribution to the pattern of adverse communication. These couples can still love each other, truly, madly, deeply, but daily conversation is a minefield.
Couples who engage in what is called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, defensiveness, criticism, contempt and stonewalling are particularly vulnerable to escalating each other’s emotional triggers.
Defending yourself from criticism with a counter criticism can be unproductive and escalates negative communication. What would happen, though, if your heard out your partner’s complaint to the end? One of the skills I teach warring couples is to create a space between the stimuli of criticism and the pause before response. This is so you can choose your reaction, be it “I hear you” or validation of feelings and empathy.
The power of influence
You could also see it as your partner trying to “influence” you rather than criticise. This can take the sting out and open up a new conversation. Nothing stops a communication breakdown by listening and validating the other, it takes the wind out of their sails and they have nowhere to go after that. It’s a win/win situation. If your partner is telling you what to do and you feel like biting their head off, ask yourself if what they are saying is true and is it actually a better way? This turnaround can be seen as not criticism but willingness to help share the burden of the problem. Reframing the conversation can lead to “mutually influencing” each other in a “we’re both in this together” feeling, where acknowledgement and validation can support better communication skills from both partners. This is also a “no blame” situation, just change talk for a better relationship outcome.
When you criticize your partner, you are making it all their fault. Common words like, “you always”, “you never” can be used. These are global generalisations that are not helpful. If you want to air a complaint make it more direct, isolate the current problem, don’t bring up the past, no shouting, no verbal abuse, no throwing things at each other. Make it about the problem, not a personal attack, because then neither of you will hear the other.
Contempt occurs when one partner feels superior to the other. Calling names, making condescending and patronising remarks, rolling your eyes and sneering in disgust are all examples of contempt. This destroys the fondness, the closeness and the love like nothing else.
This occurs when the listener withdraws from the conversation. The stonewaller might leave, or shut down because they are overwhelmed or trying to remain calm. This can lead to the assumption that the other partner does not care. It is hard to identify the signs of withdrawal in the heat of the argument and time-out is the best option. Revisit the situation when you both feel a lot calmer. You may have to do this several times. Writing down the problem you want to discuss and your feelings on it enables you to choose your words and their context with much more headspace.
Using the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in your marriage is the biggest indicator that your marriage is in serious trouble. Couples counselling helps to identify these communication styles and make changes so when this is about to occur, both partners can recognise this and do something different.
This is when couples counselling can help recognise and untangle the patterns of ineffective communication. Couples Counselling is carried out in a safe environment with where the focus is on tangible goals, equality and a “no blame” policy where both partners are equally heard by each other.