By Katie Baker
Communication with loved ones, especially with romantic partners, can influence how we feel about other parts of our lives (such as our holiday plans) and can either add to or reduce stress. This blog includes tips for communicating with your partner to help minimize tension during the holiday season (and throughout the year). These tips come from the highly researched and popularized Gottman Method for couples therapy, created by Drs. John and Judy Gottman.
Research shows that the following characteristics of communication are predictors of relationship decline when used regularly: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. Called the “Four Horsemen,” when we give or receive these negative reactions, we make it almost impossible to reach a solution. Gottman offers antidotes to the four horsemen, which can prevent a breakdown in communication, emotional disconnection, and stress.
Criticism involves attributing your partner with a negative trait. Instead of using criticism, Gottman suggests stating what you are feeling with neutrality followed by sharing your needs. An example of a critical comment is, “You never offer to help me with anything, all you think about is yourself.” Instead, try, “I’m feeling a little overwhelmed with everything I need to do. Can you help me with the meal tonight?” This takes out the blame and lets your partner know what you would like.
Defensiveness is used to protect ourselves from attack. It can show up as acting like the victim or righteous indignation. An example of defensiveness is, “It’s not my fault the gifts didn’t arrive on time.” An antidote to defensiveness is accepting responsibility for even just part of the problem. This could look like, “Well, part of this is because of me. I need to order gifts earlier next time.” Even a simple, “good point,” or “fair enough,” can defuse an otherwise negative and stressful interaction.
Contempt is the #1 predictor of relationship demise, according to Gottman. Contemptuous statements come from a place of superiority. An antidote to contempt is to cultivate appreciation, respect, and openness in the relationship. An example of contempt might be, “You’re so stupid. What were you thinking?” An antidote could be, “I feel anxious when you make plans for us without telling me. I need to be a part of making these decisions.” There’s no name-calling or blaming here, instead, focus on your feelings and what you need.
Stonewalling happens when one person emotionally withdraws from the conversation. This could look like silence or the absence of cues that let the other person know you are listening. When you feel yourself wanting to withdraw it’s okay to let your partner know that you need a few minutes before you can continue the conversation. Take a break and do something that calms you down and does not have to do with the situation. This could look like going for a walk or taking some deep breaths until you feel emotionally calmer. The important thing here is to communicate to your partner how long of a break you need (ideally no longer than 30 minutes) and assure them that you will return to talk about it when you feel calmer.
Another thing to keep in mind around the holidays is that many of us, including our partners, have high expectations for how things should go, which can increase stress. It’s important to cultivate friendship within your partnership so you two can lean on each other during high-stress situations. One way to do this is to have what Gottman calls a “Stress Reducing Conversation.” These conversations are meant to help the two of you feel like you are on the same page. Let your partner vent about something without placing judgment on them or offering advice. Take your partner’s side in these conversations, which helps your partner feel less alone. Even if you don’t agree with your partner, that is not the time to reveal this, instead, stay empathetic towards why this is hard for your partner. And again, postpone problem-solving, just be a friendly ear to listen and empathize.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to have effective conflicts and communication with your partner, our new clinician, Katie Baker is currently taking couples and would like to hear from you! Katie has completed Level 1 Gottman training and uses the Gottman Method Couples Therapy in her work.