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Improving Communication in your Relationship

How would you describe the relationship between you and the person you are caring for?

Are the two of you in a happy and healthy relationship?

What do your arguments look like?

Does chaos ensue, or do the two of you calmly and respectfully describe how you feel while working towards a solution that works for both of you?

If you are the latter, you can likely skip the rest of this article and start your own relationship blog! If you are the former or somewhere between the two, please read on.

What Predicts the Success or Failure of a Relationship?

You might be thinking the answer is how often and how much you argue. Dr. John Gottman found that it is not conflict that predicts the success or failure of a relationship, but rather how you handle conflict. In other words, it is not how much you fight but how you fight.

While Gottman’s research is specifically on couples, including same sex couples, we can easily find these patterns of behaviour in all relationships—such as how we behave and talk to one another when a difficulty arises or when we disagree about something.

Gottman is very clear that conflict is natural and normal in a relationship. He also states that you can’t always resolve conflict. This is in part because we have different personalities and do not always share the same values. We can however, learn to manage it.

Gottman has identified four communication styles or patterns that can ruin a relationship. These can be destructive and kill a relationship over time which is why Gottman calls them the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Given that most of us aren’t relationship saints, unless of course you are the exception and have the halo to prove it (!!), it is highly probable that you haven’t always been at your best in an argument. We all have had moments when we were feeling hurt, frustrated, or angry and wanted to lash out and hurt back or shut down. Most of us at one time or another (or several times), have dug in our heels and refused to apologize for our (toxic) behaviour or forgive the one who has disappointed us, dismissed us, or said mean things to us.

The real question is: Is there a pattern? Is this how your fights typically look? Do you find that the two of you repeat the same argument again and again and again with no resolution whatsoever?

Most relationships could benefit from being on the lookout for a sign that any or all of the “horsemen” have arrived. It isn’t enough however, to just be on the lookout.

What is also needed is a commitment to responding with what Gottman calls the “antidotes and repair attempts.” These antidotes and repair attempts are the way to effectively communicate both feelings and needs but also avoid escalation of conflict.

And we are not done yet! No finger pointing is allowed. Both of you are responsible for the antidotes and repair attempts—whether you are the one that dished it out or were at the receiving end.

While it would be fantastic if both you and the person in your care made this commitment, you cannot make it for another person. At the very least, you can focus on what you are willing to change to both foster and model healthy communication.

Whether you’re caring for mother, father, grandparent, spouse/partner, or another family member, watch for these four horsemen in your communication with each other:

Communication killers (Toxic behaviour)Antidotes and repair attempts (Improving communication)
Criticism: this is when we either imply or state outright that our partner has a character or personality flaw. 

Example:You always…” “You never…” “You are so selfish. You never think of the rest of us. All you ever think about is yourself.

Complain about specific behaviour, use “I” statements and express a positive need, 
complain without blame, or turn a complaint into a request (and remember that requests are not demands!).

Example: I am feeling pretty isolated and lonely. Can we talk about my day?

Defensiveness: this is when we try to protect ourselves or defend our innocence (this can be done by counter-attacking, righteous indignation, or by whining).

Example:Did you call the school and arrange a date for the teacher-parent conference?
Defensive answer: “No, you knew I wouldn’t so why didn’t you just call instead of waiting to come down on me?

Gottman describes defensiveness as another way of blaming.

Accept responsibility even if for only a small part of the problem. Search for the way(s) in which the complaint is true (what Gottman calls the 2% truth).

Example: No I didn’t. I’m sorry. It is such a hard thing for me to do. I should have asked you to do it when we first talked about it. I will call right now and leave a message.

*Contempt: this is when we put someone down using sarcasm, ridicule, or mimicking
Example:You are tired. Really? You have spent the whole day playing those stupid computer games. How old are you? 10?

*Contempt, according to Gottman’s research, is the single best predictor of divorce or break-up in couples. 

Describe your own feelings and needs (not the other person’s) and create an atmosphere of respect and appreciation (respect is given, not earned).

Example:I am feeling tired as well. I understand that you are having a bad day and yet you were able to actually get out of bed. I can see you are really trying.

Stonewalling: this is when we emotionally withdraw from the interaction and close ourselves off from the other person but physically stay in the room.

Flooding” often precedes stonewalling. In the context of relationship conflict, flooding is when your heart rate goes up to 80-100 beats per minute which means that you cannot process (we go into fight, flight, or freeze mode).

Self-soothe in order to stay connected in the interaction

To do this, top the discussion and call a time out. Let your partner know that you need to take a break. It takes at least 20 minutes for your body to reset.

While this may seem daunting, Gottman tells us that if we fight off our urge to criticize, we can hold the other three at bay (defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling).

This is a great place to start the mission of improving your relationship. In fact, Gottman shares from his over 40 years of research that small changes can often create a big impact over time. Your relationship with the person in your care might not be perfect, but by working on your communication skills together over time, you can create a strong and lasting bond.

Therapists can also help improve the dynamics and communication in the relationships. It can be quite valuable to seek advice from a third party, such as a Caregiver Coach, who are invested in your mutual health and happiness.

*This is different from an abusive relationship where one of the partners is not safe, not feeling safe to express themselves,  and where the intention of the behaviour is to diminish the other person to have  power and control over them.