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Building Bridges by Cheryl Dizon-Reynante

The four horsemen of communication failures

By Cheryl Dizon-Reynante

Are you unhappy in your marriage? It is a scary question to ask ourselves because it is an entity that we have invested so much in. We give our time, love, and finances. The state of our intimate relationships can have a heavy impact on our physical health, mental and emotional well-being and on our spiritual views. It can affect how we function at work, school, and our relationships with other family members.

One message that I often hear from clients is, “It’s their fault! They don’t understand how hard I try, all the sacrifices that I make.” It is always easier to identify the mistakes and faults of our partners. But often, the key to having a better relationship with our partner is to turn the spotlight onto ourselves.

According to Williams (2012), in most cases, each person in a relationship is responsible for at least 30 per cent of the problem. And a lot of the time, the difficulty lies in how we communicate with the other. If we make a strong commitment to change our communication style, chances are, our partner will follow.

John Gottman, a psychologist specializing in relationships, first conceptualized the four horsemen of communication failures. He identifies four major mistakes that couples make, which should be avoided at all costs. Engaging in these communication pitfalls could mean the end of a marriage. It would be worthwhile to ask yourself if you do any of the below:

1. Criticism

Criticism is different than complaining. While complaining addresses a behaviour that you don’t like, criticizing says that it is your partner that you do not like. Although criticism may feel good for the moment because you are angry and want to feel better, the long-term effects of considering your partner’s feelings will be much more beneficial. Change will be more likely to happen if you address the behaviour, not criticize the person.

Example of complaining: I noticed that the dishes are still on the counter, and you told me that you would load the dishwasher after dinner. It bothers me because this might interfere with our time together this evening. Could you have it done within the hour?

Example of criticizing: The dishes are still on the counter after you told me that you would load the dishwasher after dinner. You always let me down. You’re so lazy!

You’ll notice that criticizing often involves name-calling and labeling your partner. Words like “always” and “never” are dangerous because you imply that they are incapable of doing anything right.

2. Contempt

Contempt is the most destructive to a relationship, as it means having resentment, disrespect and even hostility towards another. It can take the form of saying direct, hurtful statements. However, contempt can also be subtler, when jokes and humour are used that are condescending and insulting. Often, when a person has facial expressions that include sneers and rolling their eyes, it is an indication of contempt.

Often, when one has contempt for their partner, they discount the positive and only focus and remember the negatives. This can lead to the conclusion that their spouse is the cause of all their misery, which is hardly ever accurate.

Contempt should be eliminated at all costs. This takes time and a lot of effort by both partners. One way to do this is to create an atmosphere of gratitude. Count and list all the things, no matter how small, that you appreciate your partner doing or saying. Tell them when you notice something positive that they are doing and say thank you.

3. Defensiveness

Many people engage in this common communication pitfall. When another person expresses a complaint (or worse, a criticism) about us, we can feel attacked and then need to defend ourselves. We explain what we are doing, why we are doing it, and why the other person is wrong. Often this involves repeating the same thing over and over again. In the end, you do not hear what the other is saying.

A way to stop this cycle is to resist the urge to defend yourself and simply say, “I understand. What can I do to make this better?” You will then be more likely to look at your own actions and words and see how this contributes to conflict within the relationship. If you make positive changes, it will change your relationship for the better.

4. Stonewalling

Stonewalling occurs when one person refuses to respond to an issue or walks away. This can leave the other feeling angry and ignored. Although it can be good to leave for a quick time out when things get heated, it should not be left unaddressed for very long. Stonewalling may start out with good intentions (ie. “I won’t say anything because I don’t want to argue”) but what tends to happen is that you don’t let it go. Resentment starts to build up until a later time when there is an explosion of emotion, complaints and criticism.

In order to avoid stonewalling, the issue should be addressed shortly after the issue comes up, in a respectful way. Emotions should be part of the dialogue, which has the effect of softening the impact of words. For instance, “I felt hurt when you didn’t ask me if I wanted to help plan the birthday party,” rather than “You never ask me to be a part of your life. You’re so insensitive!”



Frequent complaints said in a calm, respectful manner have a positive effect on relationships. Making the effort to change the way you speak to your partner can go a long way towards achieving marital satisfaction.

After all, do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?

Cheryl Dizon-Reynante is the founder of Nexus Counselling and a licensed therapist with the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association. She is a proud member of the Manitoba Filipino Business Council and a provider for the Blue Cross Employee Assistance Program. Cheryl has experience helping clients with issues such as grief, depression, relationship difficulties, parenting, aging and illness. She can be reached at (204) 297-6744 or