A year ago, my husband and I separated. We spent six months apart and eventually reconciled, and we are happier than ever. But happy doesn’t mean easy, and we have certainly had our share of work to do. For us, 99% of our problems are fixed with good communication. One of the first things we had to learn was to stop using these 4 types of communication that make things harder, rather than easier.
Any time my husband and I are arguing, it’s because one of us has a complaint. Something is happening that we don’t like, and that thing needs to be discussed. A complaint can be a good thing — it’s how we bring the specific problem to the other person’s attention. Criticism, on the other hand, involves attacking their character, values, or personality.
Criticism: ”Why are you so lazy that you can’t even put the milk back in the fridge when you’re done?”
Complaint: “I don’t like when I find the milk left out on the counter. Could you please be mindful about putting it back when you’re done?
Using complaint language helps us identity and solve the problem. Criticism language just pushes us closer to a fight.
After years of unaddressed issues in our marriage, contempt had definitely taken root in the way we communicated with each other. Contempt comes in the form of sarcasm, eye rolling, passive aggressiveness, and hostile humor. It conveys complete disapproval of your partner, and creates an environment that is not useful for solving problems. One thing I’ve learned to do when I feel contempt rising in me is to ask for a break from the conversation. I take a little time to deal with my negative feelings, and come back to the conversation when I’m in a more collaborative headspace.
If our partner comes to us with criticism and contempt, it’s natural to become defensive. But if our partner is working to bring valid complaints to the table, and to do so without contempt, we need to do our best to avoid getting defensive. Sometimes, our partners just need to address an issue that is bothering them. It’s not necessarily a reflection on our goodness or worthiness. Our partners deserve to bring valid concerns to us without fearing a defensive reaction, and we deserve to receive those concerns without taking it personally.
I sometimes get uncomfortable talking about stonewalling, because many people confuse stonewalling with healthy self-regulation and boundary setting. It is perfectly normal and healthy to walk away from a conversation when tension is getting too high and conversation is unproductive. It is also healthy to check out or disengage from someone who isn’t operating in good faith. Stonewalling is a different beast. Stonewalling isn’t a boundary — it’s a manipulation tactic. It’s when one partner shuts down, goes silent, and refuses to collaborate in order to get the other partner to give in or give up. I’ve learned that when I feel the urge to stonewall my husband, what that really means is that I have some feelings coming up that I need to address first. By taking a little time to self-regulate and put my feelings in check, I can come back to the conversation in a healthy place.
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