4 Do’s & Don’ts For Better Family & Couple Communication

Want to know the secret to greater marital and family harmony and happiness? Communicate!

But it’s not just any communication. Read on to discover four essential secrets to excellent marital and family communication.

Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute has spent his life analyzing what makes successful marriages and families. His conclusion?


Gottman is credited with identifying four key communication mistakes, which he aptly named the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. He found that habitually engaging in these four styles of negative communication doomed most couples to divorce.

Here they are in chart form:

The first column shows the behaviors to avoid at all costs. The second column shows the behaviors to practice instead.

How To Interpret the Chart

Four Keys To Great Family/Marital Communication

i. Avoid Criticism

Criticism tends to attack a person’s character rather than a specific behavior. It involves criticizing a person more for who they are or are not rather than criticizing a particular behavior.

Criticism is destructive. Whether it’s criticizing your child or your spouse, criticism tears a person down instead of building them up.

There may be times for CONSTRUCTIVE criticism. But in my experience as a marriage & family counselor, I have found that criticism is rarely offered in a constructive manner.

Instead: Instead of attacking the other person with critical “you” statements, use “I” statements expressed in the context of what you need.

Example: Instead of: “You never listen to me. If you cared about me you would listen” say,

“I don’t feel like you listen to me. I need you to listen to me because it makes me feel you care about me.”

By using “I” statements, your family members will not feel like they are being attacked and accused by your words and will, therefore, be more open to considering your issue.

ii. Avoid Contempt

Communicating with contempt is attacking your child or spouse with an openly hateful attitude. Doing this is extremely damaging, especially to children. “I wish you had never been born” is a horrible statement of contempt. Yet I hear of parents who make this kind of comment to their children.

Instead: It is easy to be negative if all you ever focus on is your child’s or spouse’s bad qualities. Learn to separate the person from their behavior. There is a big difference between hating a behavior and hating the person.

Spend time focusing on the good qualities of your family members to increase your appreciation of them.

Example: (Johnny went to a party and got drunk) Don’t say, “Johnny, you are a loser and make me sick!” Instead, maybe respond:

“I love how you help me with the housework and hold a steady job. But I am really upset and struggling that you get drunk every time we go to a party. Can I help you figure out a plan to drink less when we go out? ”

iii. Avoid Defensiveness

Defensiveness is refusing to share any blame or responsibility regarding a problem situation in the family. The result is you place all the blame on your child or spouse. The problem is being defensive keeps the problem from ever being solved because your attitude is “you are the one with the problem, not me.”

Instead: Be willing to take some responsibility in difficult situations. Admit your role in the problem, no matter how small. Why? It shows a willingness on your part to work together with your spouse or child in finding a solution.

Example: Your spouse asks you to take out the trash before you leave for work. You get defensive and respond, “I don’t need to be reminded. You are not my mother.” Instead respond, “O.K.”. It can be just that easy, folks.

iv. Avoid Stonewalling

This is the most dangerous of all the four bad communication styles. Stonewalling is when you withdraw from a conflicted discussion and refuse to acknowledge that your spouse or child is upset. The result is the problem is never addressed or even admitted by the one stonewalling.

Instead: Take a break. If one of you does not want to deal with the problem at the moment, decide to deal with it later (agree to a time). One reason people stonewall is they become overwhelmed by strong emotional comments made by the other person. Therefore, it makes sense to take a break at this point.

Example: When you sense your child or spouse is becoming overwhelmed, say something like: “I can see you are feeling overwhelmed. Let’s drop the discussion for now and return to it later? Is that o.k. with you?”

When you return to the issue do everything in your power not to make the other person feel attacked and overwhelmed. Stay calm and emotionally in control, as much as possible.

Christianly Speaking

Our Heavenly Father is very clear about the way we are to communicate and treat our loved ones and others. These scriptures are powerful and teach their own lessons.

Ephesians 4:29

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (NIV)

Proverbs 15:1

“A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare.” (NLT)

Colossians 3:8

“But now put these things out of your life: anger, losing your temper, doing or saying things to hurt others, and saying shameful things.” (ERV)

Ephesians 4:32

“Be kind and loving to each other. Forgive each other the same as God forgave you through Christ.” (ERV)

The Bottom Line

Communication is the key to having a loving, close and emotionally healthy marriage and family. There are effective ways to communicate and ineffective ways. In this article we have identified four unproductive and hurtful ways to communicate, along with a healthier alternative for each.

Remember: Avoid Communicating with:

* Criticism

* Contempt

* Defensiveness

* Stonewalling

They will harm your marriage and your family! Learn to talk and discuss negative issues by using the four better ways we discussed. Your spouse, children, and YOU, will be better for doing so!

For the Family,

bill walker


Before You Go

Thank you for reading this article.

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Dr. Bill Walker

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