By: Carol Briggs, Clinical Intern

How often do questions or comments from your spouse or significant other turn into an argument? How often does that argument spiral out of control into a whirlwind of negativity?

Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling often make an appearance in our conflicts with partners. These are The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, as John and Julie Gottman, experts in couple’s therapy, call them. When they make an appearance, connection, understanding, and effective communication are hard to find.  Criticism and contempt are used as weapons of attack, while defensiveness and stonewalling are used to shield perceived and real attacks. I say “perceived” because in the moment, the intention of the speaker matters less than what the listener hears.

It makes sense that when someone criticizes us, we instinctively want to defend ourselves. Defensiveness in couples usually results in more criticism. When contempt (insults, name-calling, putdowns, blame) rears its ugly head, the emotional injury caused damages love, seemingly beyond repair sometimes.  And when we stonewall our partners, although it’s a protective measure, the chance for connection is zero.

So, what do we do with this information?  Do we go through our relationships without ever being able to lodge complaints to our partners? No, but we can learn to respond to conflict in a gentler manner. John and Julie Gottman named the “healthier method of voicing complaints” the Gentle Start-Up. This way of raising a complaint involves expressing feelings, describing what has caused the feelings, and stating what is needed to feel better. Let’s review the steps.

  1. State your feelings using “I” (I feel afraid, unloved, lonely, sad)
  2. Describe the situation that makes you feel this way. The what, not the who.
  3. State what will help you feel better, what you need.

Here is an example:

“Babe, I feel worried about seeing your family this weekend. I feel criticized when they comment on the fact that I haven’t found work yet. Can you please stand up for me if they bring it up?”

Expressing something in this way will likely be heard and received in a much different way than, “I hate seeing your family! They’re always asking about work and they have no idea how hard it is right now. And you just sit there and say nothing!”

Of course, learning to communicate complaints in the gentler way is something most of us must learn by practice because we fall back on familiar, unhealthy ways of communicating that we’ve learned growing up. Maybe we aren’t even aware of how our communication is being received by our partners. And maybe they don’t have the skills to communicate that to us either. The good news is that skills can be taught and learned!

If you’re feeling disconnected from your partner, feeling like communication could be better, or would like to learn healthier ways to address conflict in your relationship, contact us. We can help! You can build a better relationship with your partner. Owens & Associates proudly supports LGBTQIA couples.

Call us at (847) 854-4333 for a free 15-minute phone consultation with anyone of our highly trained clinicians!