You are currently viewing Couples Counselling – Key Communication Skills

Couples Counselling – Key Communication Skills

Couples Counselling – Key Communication Skills

No relationship can be perfect all the time and conflict can be healthy as it can be productive in getting your needs met by your partner. It’s how you deal with conflict that can potentially be problematic.

Research has shown that there are some patterns of interaction in a relationship that are very destructive to our relationships. John Gottman, renowned relationship expert, discovered four markers of relationship failure with 93 percent accuracy in predicting divorce. He named them dramatically as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These are criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stone-walling. Last week’s blog looked at criticism and defensiveness, this week’s looks at stonewalling and contempt.


Stonewalling occurs when the listener simply withdraws from the interaction while staying in the room, sometimes pretending not be to listening but exhibiting particular non-verbal behaviour such as not maintaining eye contact or a defensive stand like crossing ones’ arms.

Gottman found that it men are far more likely to stonewall than women (Men stonewall 85% of the time, women only 15%). We often stonewall because we become overwhelmed internally, what Gottman calls “flooded.” We get highly agitated, our heartbeat races and we stop thinking very clearly. Stonewalling is an ineffective attempt to calm ourselves (or the situation) down, but often this doesn’t happen for two reasons:

• The person who is stonewalling is thinking negative thoughts over and over in their minds (“I can’t believe she said that! That is so unfair!”) and

• The person who is experiencing the stonewalling often finds it very upsetting to be ignored. Often they will attempt to re-engage their partner by escalating the conflict. In other words, they fight harder or louder.

The alternative to Stonewalling is to learn to calm yourself down actively, and then to re-engage in the conversation. This may take a lot of practice, but again it is vital to stop repeating this pattern or the relationship is in danger of breaking down.


The final Horseman is Contempt which is extremely harmful. It includes things like threats, name calling, and insulting. We see the other three Horsemen in good relationships, but we don’t see Contempt. Threats are a pattern of psychological abuse, and are never helpful. Nothing is more destructive to love.

Being contemptuous is to put someone down, to take the moral high ground as in “I’m better than you are.” Sometimes couples will mock each other. Sometimes they will correct each others grammar. The message is “I’m superior to you. You are beneath me.” The contemptuous person often scans the environment, looking for people’s mistakes, instead of what is positive about their partner or what they can enjoy and appreciate about them.

Contempt can be shown non-verbally with an eye-roll or a unilateral lifting of the lip. We identify these “micro-expressions” in a fraction on a second – picking them up unconsciously.

To fight contempt, couples have to work hard to create a culture of appreciation. Both of you may be feeling very unappreciated in this relationship. To change this around, it is important to actively change one’s mindset. Catch your partner doing something right, and tell them you appreciate them for what they are doing.Troubled couples are very speedy in their interactions. They can flash a sneer or roll their eyes in an instant. Any interaction deteriorates into high emotion, no rational conversation.

The key thing to remember is that all couples engage in criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling at times. When you or your partner cannot engage in conflict in a healthy manner and use the four horsemen consistently, it is time to seek help in establishing healthy communication tools. A good rule of thumb is to remember the 5:1 ratio — five positive interactions to every one negative interaction.

Gottman has a relationship quiz on his website which can help to tease out the patterns of communication in your own relationship::

Need some advice and support?

If you are experiencing relationship difficulties at the moment and would like to talk it over either by yourself or as a couple, in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

Book a counselling session today!

Other related articles: Couples Counselling (1), Stress and Relationships