The types of problems that families encounter are diverse, and the causes can vary from specific events to long-term relational difficulties. A common factor to both family problems and health, however, is communication. Communication, or how two or more people interact with and speak to each other, is a skill that can either build up or break down relationships.
There are four negative communication styles identified by the Gottman Institute, which is a research-based counselling approach designed specifically for relationships. These communication styles include contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. While these terms are most often used to conceptualize marital problems, they can also apply to interactions that occur in other relationships.
Criticism is attacking another individual’s character and goes beyond valid complaints or constructive criticism. It often takes the form of absolute statements, such as saying to a partner “you only ever think about yourself”.
Contempt goes a step further than criticism. It contains elements of self-superiority and intends to make the other individual feel inferior or ridiculous. Contempt may look like scorn, mimicking, or mocking, and can also show up as eye-rolls, scoffing, or a sarcastic tone of voice. Saying “Do I really have to tell you again?” can be a contemptuous response to a partner’s question.
Defensiveness often occurs in response to criticism and is a way to shield the self from a perceived attack. Defensiveness may take the form of excuses, playing the victim, or turning the blame back on the other individual. For example, in response to a partner asking why they are frustrated, an individual may point to the partner’s words or actions as the cause.
Stonewalling refers to when an individual withdraws from the interaction physically, emotionally, or cognitively. This behaviour is often in response to contempt and may present as an individual tuning out, turning away, or engaging in distracting behaviours.
In all these communication styles, the actions of one person will influence the reaction of another. For example, an individual will likely become defensive if someone is criticizing them. This defensive reaction can cause the original speaker to become more critical, or even contemptuous. A pattern like this is cyclical, and as the interaction progresses the responses tend to get stronger.
In understanding the interactional nature of relationships, partners and families have an opportunity to work together against the problem instead of against each other. While not all family challenges are caused by dysfunctional communication patterns, having healthy ways of interacting with each other is necessary for solving common family problems. As highlighted by the Gottman Institute, each negative style of communication has an “antidote”, or something constructive that the individual can do instead.
Instead of criticizing, try a gentle start-up that helps the other individual understand your needs and identifies a valid, external complaint. Instead of “you only ever think about yourself”, emphasize shared responsibilities and specific solutions.
Building a culture of appreciation is the solution for contempt. A culture of appreciation includes noticing and reminding yourself of the other individual’s good qualities and their positive actions.
Taking responsibility is the antidote for defensiveness. This does not mean accepting responsibility for things that are not your fault, but rather acknowledging the other individual’s perspective and taking ownership of personal wrongdoings.
Instead of stonewalling, learn techniques to self-soothe. Listen to what your body is saying to you and take a step back if necessary. You may need to explain to others that you need time to process but will be able to continue the conversation later.
The Gottman Institute. Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-the-antidotes/
Gottman therapy is just one approach to working with couples and families, and you will need to decide what the best fit for you is. Regardless of the approach, acknowledging the other person’s strengths, listening to their perspective, accepting responsibility, and working together are all key elements.
Your therapist will collaborate with you to identify the needs of the family, discover hopes, and formulate a plan to get there.
Benson, K. (2017, August 23). Breaking the pursue-withdraw pattern: An interview with Scott R. Woolley, Ph.D. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/breaking-pursue-withdraw-pattern-interview-scott-r-woolley-ph-d/
Lisitsa, E. (2013, April 23). The four horsemen: Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/
Lisitsa, E. (2013, April 26). The four horsemen: The antidotes. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-the-antidotes/
Strong, T., Couture, S., Godard, G., & Hope, T. (2008). Karl Tomm’s collaborative approaches to counselling. Canadian Journal of Counselling, 42(3), 174-191. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ818439.pdf