Here are four toxic ways of communicating that are bound, if left unchecked, to end a marriage or relationship. Understanding them and being able to identify them are key to not just keeping your relationship healthy but to assuring its future. They are criticismcontempt, defensiveness and stonewalling

  • Criticism

When you fight, do either of you begin sentences with the words, “You always” or “You never?”  The difference between complaining and criticism may, at a glance, seem superficial or just parsing words but it actually isn’t. Criticism involves attacking someone’s character or personality—rather than a specific behaviour—usually with blame. It’s not usual for members of a couple to have differing views about spending money but when you complain about how your partner has, in your opinion, over-spent, do you make it personal? Do you bring up as many examples of his or her failure as you can dredge out of the past?  Or do you simply point out that the money was actually needed for something else? There is an important difference.

Complaining, done right, is actually a good thing in a marriage or relationship; it’s generally a bad idea to muzzle yourself until you reach a boiling point because it’s at that moment that you’re going to be more likely to lapse into criticism than not. Speak up but pay attention to how you speak.

  • Contempt

Criticism opens the door to contempt. Contempt is defined as “the intention to insult and psychologically abuse your partner.” Yes, things have escalated to the point that the knives are out and it’s all about power and control. Contempt can be expressed through physical gestures (eye rolling, sneering, or mocking laughter) or verbally such as calling someone names or insulting them. Make no mistake: These are abusive behaviours and shouldn’t be excused or placated. And, yes, apologies are in order.

The real problem here is that what reigns is retaliation and what has shifted is your or your partner’s motivation.

  • Defensiveness

This may seem initially confusing because, after all, if someone has criticized you or displayed contempt, shouldn’t you make an effort to defend yourself? The problem is that defensiveness becomes a go-to stance which effectively cuts off even a remote possibility of communicating and, of course, the person defending him or herself feels utterly justified so there’s no hope of that person simply stopping.

There are certain kinds of defensive postures and they’re worth familiarizing yourself with especially if they have infiltrated your familiar ways of interacting. Denying responsibility, no matter what, is one, while making excuses is another. 

If one or both partners inevitably become defensive in this way, you are on a train to nowhere.

  • Stonewalling

Manipulative to the max and meant to marginalize and demoralize, stonewalling really sounds the death knell of a relationship. Stonewalling is often justified by the person doing it as trying to calm things down but stony silence actually ratchets up tension. This is abusive behaviour, meant to disempower the person speaking and make them feel worthless and small.

Again, if stonewalling is habitual, that’s one thing, but if your partner walks out of a room in an effort to tamper down his or your temper, that’s no reason to hit the panic button. Men tend to stonewall more than women, research shows; it’s been studied so often that the formal name for the behaviour is Demand/Withdraw.

In a relationship with one controlling partner, stonewalling can be effective because it plays on the insecurities of the disempowered partner who is more likely to start apologizing and appeasing when faced with stony silence. While this cycle of stonewall-and-make-up may seem to grant the relationship a reprieve, it’s a game-ender in the long run.

Toxic behaviours such as these should never be normalized. For further support & advice contact EAP Assist.