- Criticism. This occurs when you paint a picture of your partner as a flawed individual. Criticizing is different than voicing a complaint. For example, a complaint might be "I wish you would take out the trash." A criticism would be, "You never take out the trash because you are so lazy." Over time this kind of criticism can create a large divide between partners because the target of criticism starts to become defensive.
- Defensiveness. This happens when you have an argument and spend most of your time defending why you are right. This is the blind spot in conflict. Your partner might have a valid point, but if you agree, you admit your part in it. Admissions of wrongdoing can be very hard in relationships, so defensiveness becomes the default at times. If you hear yourself often denying any responsibility for the problems in a relationship, you are most likely in defensive mode.
- Stonewalling. Ever had your partner leave the room, roll their eyes, or look away when a difficult topic arises? Ever had the silent treatment? That's stonewalling. It's a fundamental avoidance technique used when there's a perceived inability to resolve a difference or open up to the negative experience of conflict. Disagreement, disappointment, and anger with our partners are difficult emotions to have. Avoidance of them is very common, and stonewalling often results.
- Contempt. Gottman states that contempt is the most difficult of the four because it tends to be the highest predictor of divorce among married couples. Contempt is akin to disgust with your partner. It involves a sense that you are better than them. Sometimes this takes the form of mockery or making fun, and particularly in public, can be hurtful and destructive of trust. Contempt undermines the perception of a relationship as an emotionally safe place.
Most importantly, know that a healthy relationship is not devoid of these negative patterns of communication. All relationships struggle. The goal is not to avoid having problems in your relationship, but rather to focus on healthy repairs when ruptures occur.
Healthy repairs include recognizing when you are criticizing, defending, stonewalling, or contemptuous. Talking through differences with willingness to have the difficult feelings that come along with them is a healthy step toward mutual understanding. A couples counselor can help guide these difficult conversations in a productive way, and provide the couple with the tools to accept difficult emotions. Counseling also provides neutral territory where everyone's points are equally valid and everyone has equal opportunity to express their needs.