4 communication patterns that doom relationships

4 communication patterns that doom relationships


“Doom relationships” may seem like strong language. But according to research, it’s true! There are 4 negative communication patterns that predict the eventual demise of a relationship if they’re showing up a lot in communication. It’s fairly normal for these to show up in communication once in awhile, but your relationship could be in trouble if they’re showing up a lot. As you read this, check in with yourself about whether or not you recognize these. If you do, there’s ways to start working on them right away, which I’ll describe below as well.


  1. Contempt. This happens when you take a position of superiority to your partner. You talk down to them, belittle them or show them contempt with body language, sarcasm, or eye-rolling. The presence of contempt in a couple’s communication is the #1 predictor of divorce. 
    1. What’s the antidote? Create a culture of appreciation in your relationship. Notice what you love about your partner and what they do right. Let them know how you feel about them and what you’re grateful for. When you do need to bring up a problem, use a gentle startup: Say, “I feel ____ about ____ and I need ____.” For example, if you’re upset that the kitchen is a mess, say, “I feel frustrated about the messy kitchen. I need you to help clean it up.” Instead of, “You’re such a slob! You always leave the kitchen messy!”
  2. Defensiveness. Defensiveness is sometimes triggered when the other person gets critical, but not always. Some folks struggle with defensiveness even if the other person has brought up an issue in a gentle and loving way. Defensiveness looks like making excuses for your behavior, or counter-attacking your partner, or playing the victim. 
    1. The antidote to defensiveness: Take responsibility. Even if you only agree that you are responsible for 5% of what happened, take responsibility for that 5 percent. Do not counterattack or play the victim. Listen to the other person’s concerns with your full attention.
  3. Criticism. Criticism looks like blaming your partner. “You always” and “You never” statements are usually criticisms. Criticism can also look like correcting your partner a lot or describing them in a negative way. 
    1. The antidote: A gentle start up. It’s an antidote to both criticism and contempt. Talk about how you feel and your own experience rather than describing your partner or blaming them. Be as specific as you can, and try to avoid “you always” and “you never.” Say, “I feel ____ About____I need____.”
  4. Stonewalling. Stonewalling is when you just shut down. You stop making eye contact. You’re physically present, but not emotionally present anymore. You might even physically just walk out of the room without saying anything about where you’re going. Stonewalling happens when you feel overwhelmed; you’re so triggered that you shut down. This has the unfortunate effect of making the other person feel unheard, and they may escalate their efforts to get your attention with more criticism.
    1. The antidote: Self-soothe. Notice when yu’re getting very upset. Take some deep breaths. Connect with your body. If you’re very triggered and need a break, put that into words. Let your partner know that you need a break and how much time you need. 

Why do these communication patterns doom relationships? It’s incredibly hard to resolve conflict when one or both people are getting defensive, critical, stonewalling or contemptuous. Relationships are cycles of rupture and repair; to repair, you need to feel heard, understood and cared for even in difficult times.

Check out this video from the Gottmans which describes these communication patterns in more detail.

Are these negative communication patterns showing up when you communicate with your partner? Couples counseling could help you identify where your challenge areas are and work on your communication together. Feel free to schedule a free consult to learn more about working with me.