Do you ever find yourself arguing with your partner over the same issues again and again without resolution? Or perhaps walking on eggshells during conversations to avoid setting them off? Destructive communication patterns like these can slowly corrode relationships. Even if you love each other, negative cycles of interaction create barriers to intimacy and understanding over time.

Our communication habits can either strengthen or slowly corrode our relationships over time. Unfortunately some very common ways of interacting are more damaging than we may realize.

Gottman and Silver outlined in their book "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work" the four most common destructive communication patterns that lead to conflict escalation in marriages: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

1. Criticism

Criticism is no way to address a problem in ANY relationship. It only attacks the person's character or personality rather than fixing the specific behavior that is bothering you.

Criticism is like a verbal dagger that can pierce through the emotional fabric of your relationship.

According to Gottman and Silver, criticism often comes from underlying issues such as insecurities, rage, or even resentment. Criticism is a form of negative emotion that may be painful, humiliating, and detrimental to a relationship if it is not handled well.

Criticism goes after a partner's very essence rather than a singular action.

For example saying, "You never think about how your behavior impacts me" vs. "I felt hurt when you didn't ask about my day."

Criticism is often phrased in a way that is negative and accusatory

Criticism uses absolute language like "always" or "never," which immediately puts a partner on the defensive.

It also often involves blaming or accusing a partner of intentionally wanting to hurt them. This ascribes negative motivation.

Criticism also brings up past issues instead of dealing with the present moment.

For example "You don't care about me, just like when you forgot my birthday."

The main issue with criticism is that it's very unproductive and creates more conflict. It focuses on tearing a partner down rather than building them up. It damages self esteem and erodes affection in the relationship over time.

The solution is moving to gentle, "I centered" complaints focused on specific behaviors not character assassination.

2. Contempt

Contempt is the most destructive of the four horsemen. Why? Well, it involves expressing disgust or disrespect towards your partner. This type of communication can make your partner feel belittled, humiliated, and hopeless about the relationship.

Contempt, as identified by Gottman and Silver, is the corrosive force that arises when one partner feels superior to the other. That just tips down the balance of a supposedly balance relationship.

Contempt can be in a form of sneering, sarcasm, eye-rolling, and other demeaning behaviors. This toxic habit tears down the very foundation of love and respect in your relationship rather than creating an environment where hostility creeps up on your relationship like a pest slowly breaking down your relationship.

Contempt undermines the foundation of trust.

Contempt often involves harsh humor and mockery designed to make your partner feel small and embarrassed. Sarcasm or mean jokes that demean are common. Expressions of physical disgust towards your partner - rolling your eyes, making "yuck" faces etc - also fall under contemptuous behavior.

Statements that come from a relative position of superiority, implying your partner is beneath you, fit contempt.

For example "What is wrong with you?" or "Any normal person would know how to do this correctly!"

Shaming and blaming your partner by attacking their values, tastes, personality or goals as inferior demonstrates contempt. Putdowns come from this place.

Essentially contempt aims to chip away at your partner's sense of self-worth. Continued contempt paves the way for isolation. It represents seeing your partner as unworthy of basic human dignity and connection. Transforming relationships infected by contempt starts with naming those toxic patterns and intentionally building goodwill through warmth, empathy, praise and understanding instead.

3. Defensiveness

Defensiveness is a way of protecting yourself from criticism by attacking the person who is criticizing you. It is often the knee-jerk reaction to criticism but also the shield that blocks connection. Instead of acknowledging your partner's concerns, defensiveness responses tend to deflect blame and counterattack.  

This type of communication can escalate conflict and make it difficult for you to resolve the issue at hand.

Making excuses for your behaviors and denying responsibility rather than listening with an open mind.

For example "I only did that because you..." or "That's not even a big deal anyway."

Defensiveness stops constructive communication.

It also just seeing problems as totally the fault of your partner. Stop using "you" language excessively to flip accountability.

For example "You're always nagging me, that's why I didn't want to talk about this right now."

Cross-complaining - meeting your partner's grievance with an immediate complaint about them.

For example if your partner says "I'm upset you were late for dinner," you respond "Well I wouldn't have been late if you hadn't taken so long running your errand beforehand."

Essentially defensiveness involves protecting yourself at the expense of the relationship. Shifting blame, intentionally misunderstanding, making light of issues raised, or passive aggressiveness all demonstrate deflecting responsibility in an effort to minimize discomfort. Gottman and Silver emphasize that it is important of taking responsibility for your actions, even if it means acknowledging imperfections.

4. Stonewalling

Stonewalling is a form of emotional withdrawal that involves shutting down and refusing to communicate. It'll be like talking to a wall!

Stonewalling is perhaps is the most insidious among the four horsemen. It involves withdrawing and shutting down emotionally. Due to the other three horsemen happening often over an extended length of time, stonewalling usually occurs after a couple has been together for a long time.

This silent treatment creates a figurative wall, isolating you and your partner from each other. This type of communication can make the other person feel frustrated, abandoned, and like they don't matter or exist!

Gottman and Silver stress the need for recognizing when stonewalling is occurring and implementing strategies to take a break and return to the conversation when emotions have cooled.

Stonewalling involves going silent and unresponsive even as your partner continues speaking to you just like saying things to end the conversation like, "whatever" or "think what you want, I'm done"

Stonewalling is often the last resort a way of coping with feeling emotionally exhausted.

Stonewalling can also be done by disengaging physically by leaving the room, turning away, crossing arms or avoiding eye contact with your partner. It can aslo happen when you or your partner mindlessly agreeing just for the exchange to be over even when issues remain unresolved

Stonewalling is also intentionally blocking out, ignoring, or "tuning out" a partner who continues attempting to communicate

Stonewalling sends a powerful rejecting message - essentially that your partner is not worth listening to or emotionally investing in during heated discussions. It fuels distance for the stonewaller's partner and continues destructive conflict cycles. Breaking this withdrawing communication pattern before it calcifies necessitates naming when it happens, expressing the associated feelings, actively listening without judgement and investing time into connecting outside arguments.

While the four horsemen represent destructive communication patterns, understanding them is the first step toward transformation.

The Impact Of Destructive Communication Patterns

Looping in a destructive communication pattern can have a lot of detrimental impacts.

Destructive communication patterns like criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling can have profoundly negative impacts on relationships over time if left unchecked.

Here are some of the common damaging outcomes:

1. Eroded Fondness

Your once-sweet, tender talks for your significant other begin to fade and are replaced by a feeling of meh! That heart-eyed honeymoon vibe? Gone!

Constant criticism, disrespect, defensiveness, and stonewalling may chip away at the warmth you once had. It will be leaving you feeling like you're living with a stranger. It's like the warm cup of cocoa you loved as a child, now turned into a cold cup of disappointment.

Fundamental goodwill and positive sentiment toward your partner gets steadily worn away by toxic communication cycles.

Minor issues balloon as negativity takes over.

2. Lost Intimacy

Toxic communication is the ultimate mood killer, leaving you stranded like 2 ships in the night...but not in a romantic way. More in a this-sucks-we-barely-talk kind of way. Intimacy, that special bond that makes your relationship feel unique and irreplaceable, can easily slip away when communication goes off the rails.

The emotional and physical distance created shuts down vulnerability and affection key for intimacy to thrive. Feelings of loneliness set in over time. It's like trying to connect with a ghost – no matter how hard you try, you just can't seem to reach them.

3. Increased Tension

Imagine a pressure cooker, filled with pent-up frustration, ready to explode. That's what happens when destructive communication patterns simmer and boil over. Unresolved conflict simmers fueling more heated exchanges and fights. Anger and resentment build infecting more areas of life.

Every conversation becomes a minefield, every interaction a potential conflict. It's like living on edge, constantly waiting for the next communication catastrophe to strike. Suddenly every minor disagreement blows up into a full-on telenovela drama scene. And no one needs that kind of stress!

4. Damaged Self-Esteem

All those nasty digs, jabs, and insults? Constant criticism, contempt, and defensiveness can make you feel like you're not good enough, that you're the problem.  They sucker punch your self-worth right in the feels over time, leaving even the most confident hotties questioning themselves. Not cool!

You might feel stuck in a never-ending loop of insecurity and self-doubt. Your partner's words become like daggers that eat away at your self-worth and confidence.

Emotional scars run deep, folks.

5. Relationship Deterioration

With the loss of fondness, intimacy and emotional connection, couples pull apart seeing each other more as adversaries than trusted partners. This decay fuels further toxicity or apathy. At this stage you're halfway to ghosting each other to avoid anymore heated debates about squeezing the toothpaste right. It's just a slippery slope my friends, and a dang hard one to climb back up!

Without naming and uprooting destructive communication habits through intentional vulnerability, empathy training, and counseling support healthy relationships eventually die. But by addressing conflict early there is tremendous potential for growth in communication, conflict resolution capability and overall partnership fulfillment.

How To Identify And Address Destructive Communication Patterns

Here are some practical tips for identifying and addressing destructive communication patterns before they undermine a relationship:

  1. Write down things your partner says often that feel dismissive, belittling, or critical. Examine them for signs of criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling. Bring up ones that stand out.
  2. Raise issues immediately after an instance of damaging behavior versus letting them accumulate. Name the specific behavior like eye rolling or sarcasm that feels hurtful rather than leaving it as a vague complaint.
  3. If a complaint from your partner feels unjustified or exaggerated, repeat it back to confirm understanding. Do not start blaming or defending immediately - seek to understand first. Defensiveness blocks communication.
  4. Request complaining gently and non-accusingly in positive terms. For example "I would feel respected if we could discuss arriving late without accusations of not caring." This makes listening easier.
  5. Agree to table ideological debates that involve fundamental differences of opinion if interactions escalate into attacking character or disengagement. Framing issues around feelings helps.
  6. Make deposits together by committing to daily meaningful connections away from areas of conflict like walks, shared hobbies, intentional affection etc. This maintains fondness.

The key is building awareness together, identifying toxic patterns in kind but crystal clear terms as soon as possible and consistently dedicating energy to positive, uplifting shared experiences. This provides a strong foundation for #7 - seeking professional counseling or mediation support if deeply rooted patterns persist. Your relationship deserves a storyline filled with understanding, growth, and the triumph of love. 💬✨

About the Author

Sheravi Mae Galang is a Filipino psychometrician and writer who delves into the complexities of love and relationships. With a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology and a current pursuit of a Master's Degree in Clinical Psychology, she explores human relationships, focusing on the psychology behind attachments, communication, personal growth, and more. Sheravi aims to increase understanding of the factors that influence relationships in order to help people nurture stronger bonds.

You can connect with her through email (