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Your Arguing Style Tells A Lot About The Future Of Your Relationship


According to researchers studying marriage and relationships, the way a couple argues tells a lot about the future of their relationship. In fact, researchers studying married couples at the University of Washington were able to predict with 91% accuracy whether a couple would stay together or divorce, primarily by analyzing the couple’s communication patterns during disagreements.

What behaviors are most damaging to a relationship?

All couples have conflicts, but disagreement or fighting in and of itself isn’t predictive of divorce. What is most damaging, the researchers report, is the kind of arguing that includes:

Criticism ● Defensiveness ● Contempt ● Stonewalling

These negative ways of interacting are devastating to a relationship. They sabotage any attempts at constructive communication, erode positive feelings and result in both partners feeling alienated, rejected, frustrated, angry or unloved.

If your relationship is suffering due to these negative forms of communication, the information below can help you begin to learn how to change your arguing style to one that is more positive and healthy for your relationship:

● Criticism: Complaining to your partner is normal and healthy, however, the way you go about expressing these complaints is most important. The problem arises when complaints turn into criticisms. A complaint focuses on a specific behavior or situation. A criticism, however, attacks the personality or character of the person, usually with the intent of making someone right and someone wrong.

Example: “I was worried when you were late coming home and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other” is a complaint. “You never think about how your behavior affects me. You just think about yourself all of the time” is a criticism.

Criticism uses phrases like: “You never…,” “You always…,” or “Why don’t you ever…?” Criticism inevitably puts people on the defensive, undermining the chance for effective communication and solving the problem at hand.

Defensiveness: Defensiveness usually happens when we feel criticized or treated unfairly by our partner – whether or not that was his/her intent. We feel accused of something and think that if we tell our partner our excuse for doing what we did, he or she will back off. But the excuse just tells our partner that we haven’t considered anything he or she has said. Basically, by defending ourselves we are ignoring our partner.

Example: She: “Did you call Eric and Stacy today as you said you would to let them know that we are not coming tonight?” He: “I was just too busy today at work. You know how busy my schedule is. Why didn’t you just do it?” He not only responds defensively but turns the table and makes it her fault.

Defensiveness includes:

“Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner,” says renowned marriage expert John Gottman, Ph.D. “You’re saying, in effect, the problem isn’t me, it’s you.” As a result, the problem is not resolved and the conflict escalates further.

Contempt: Contempt involves putting your partner down with insults, critical comments, verbal abuse and hostile body language with the intention to psychologically abuse him or her. It includes putdowns, name-calling, mocking, sarcasm, ridiculing, hostile humor, condescension, eye-rolling and sneering. “There’s something wrong with you” or “You are so selfish” are examples of contempt. Name calling like: “stupid,” “wimp,” “fat,” “ugly,” or “lazy” are also examples.

Contempt is extremely detrimental to a relationship, leaving the partner at whom it is directed feeling hurt, angry and extremely negative toward the partner who is hurling the insults and abuse.

Stonewalling: When a partner becomes exhausted or overwhelmed by continuous criticism, defensiveness and contempt, stonewalling is often the next response. Stonewalling is withdrawing from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict. Examples of stonewalling include: silence, changing the subject, talking or muttering to ourselves or physically removing ourselves. Any form of disengagement can be stonewalling.

The stonewaller may think they are being neutral, but stonewalling conveys disapproval, icy distance, separation, disconnection and/or smugness. Stonewalling solves nothing, but creates hard feelings and further damages the relationship.

Is your relationship suffering?

Eliminating negative communication styles and learning healthier ways to communicate are both vital to your relationship success. “You have a choice every time you say something to your partner,” says Gottman. “You can say something that will either nurture your relationship, or tear it down. You may ‘win’ a particular fight with your spouse, but you could lose the marriage in the long run.”

Do you or your partner communicate with any of the negative communication styles discussed above? If yes, the way to rid your relationship of criticism, defensiveness, contempt or stonewalling – or other damaging communication styles – is to learn how to communicate without them? The following can help:

1. Become aware of how and your partner are treating each other. Most couples who engage in hurtful and damaging communication are blind to the extent of their destruction and simply don’t know how to communicate any differently with their partner. The first step is to recognize the negative communication styles you and your partner practice.

2. Communication skills are learned. Effective communication with your partner is not something we automatically know how to do. Relationship skills are learned. Since communication skills are learned, couples can unlearn skills that are not working well and learn more effective ones. Google search “fair fighting” for an abundance of information for couples on how to resolve conflict in ways that nurture, rather than damage, your relationship.

3. Commit to change and improve. Change requires humility and courage. We need to admit that we don’t know it all and make the effort to understand and learn what is needed. While it’s best if both partners are committed to change, even if only one partner is consciously trying to change, any change can bring a shift in the dynamic of the relationship, which can bring positive results.

4. Get individual counseling for criticism and contempt. In order to change criticism and contempt, the person who engages in these behaviors needs to go to individual counseling – because the attack on another person’s worth usually stems from childhood wounds such as parental criticism, belittling or excessive demands. Getting the right help can make a tremendous difference in your relationship.

5. Seek outside help such as couples counseling. It is difficult for couples to identify on their own the root causes of their problems and then to know how to change their behaviors. A professional counselor can help you and your partner identify your destructive communication styles, learn healthy and productive communication skills and help you heal your relationship.

6. Practice, practice, practice. With diligent practice, what begins as uncomfortable and difficult can become second nature. The more you practice communicating without these negative forms of communication – and communicate using more positive skills – the stronger your relationship will be.

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