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Quite often problematic communication styles are the primary contributors to dysfunction in couples and families, leading to misunderstanding, resentment, and anger towards each other, not to mention gridlock. There are several common problematic communication styles that can be disastrous to any relationship. Here are a few common problematic communication styles that have been found to be detrimental to relationships by renowned couples therapists and researchers, Drs. John and Julie Gottman:
- Harsh startup – Arguments starting with attacks using, for example, criticism or sarcasm rather than hearing out the partners options, thoughts, and feelings about a matter.
- Criticism – Direct attacks to a partner’s character often using disrespectful and offensive words to describe their faults.
- Contempt – Demeaning one’s partner using sarcasm and cynicism, often time expressing disgust by eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, or hostile humor.
- Stonewalling – Withdrawing from the conversation in an attempt to avoid the conflict or tune out the partner, for example by turning away.
- Defensiveness – Denying responsibility for any part of the conflict and instead blaming one’s partner or finding excuses.
Mental Health Implications
According to the U.S. Census Bureau divorce rates have risen from 15.1 million (from a total of 112.6 million married) in 1990 to 23.2 million (from a total of 130.3 million married) in 2009. Besides the higher likelihood of relationship dissatisfaction, separation, or divorce, children are also affected by their parents’ difficulty in resolving conflicts. There is a wealth of research indicating that children’s mental health is negatively impacted by parental discord affecting their psychological health in adulthood. For example, in a Report from the Department of Health and Human Services (2009), it was noted that “marital conflict has been found to elicit negative, aggressive behaviors in children, in both boys and girls” and that “the ability of parents to resolve their conflicts successfully was associated with self-reported levels of anxiety in children (Kerig, 1996). That is, parents who more constructively resolved their conflicts had children who reported lower levels of anxiety.” Moreover, children exposed to parental discord may experience symptoms of anxiety such as racing thoughts, poor concentration, feeling nervous, and sleep problems. Such symptoms may contribute to diminished academic functioning or problematic behavior. The impact on children alone is a compelling reason to improve one’s ability to communicate effectively.
8 Communication Tips
- Respect each other – Harsh startups using criticism or contempt will just make your partner more defensive and angry. Instead, set ground rules for arguing; for example, no name calling or sarcasm.
- Truly listen and reflect – Listening includes the ability to reflect back and summarize what you heard. So try not to be defensive or think of a counter-argument while listening to the other person speak, instead check in with them to make sure you understood their side correctly.
- Be honest – Integrity, or owning up to one’s mistakes or shortcomings, is critical in order to move passed gridlock.
- Body language – One’s true intent and emotion is communicated through one’s body language. Just as yelling does not communicate love or understanding, watching TV or talking on the phone while a partner attempts to communicate with you suggests that you are disinterested.
- Take a break – When one becomes angry, a number of physiological reactions occurs, including increased heart rate and blood pressure, making it difficult to think clearly or rationally. Take an hour or more to calm down before attempting to repair things again.
- Provide solutions – When discussing a problem with your partner don’t just complain about what they are doing wrong, rather come up with what you would like them to do, which would help improve the situation.
- Be a team – Many times couples begin to lose sight of their common goal and begin to see each other as rivals. Instead, view each other as team members, refocus goals, and work towards them together.
- Seek professional help – It is difficult to see one’s problems objectively from within and seeking outside professional help may allow you to learn and practice healthier communication styles in a safe, confidential setting.
The American Psychological Association has more communication tips specifically geared toward improving communication with one’s children.
Author: Dr. Yoendry Torres, Clinical Psychologist