top of page

4 Negative Communication Patterns

Did you know that there are four negative communication patterns, as defined by psychological researcher John Gottman, that can lead to a breakdown and the possible end of your relationship?

1. Criticism

The first negative communication pattern is criticism. Criticizing your partner is different from voicing a complaint. Criticism is an attack on your partner's character. Criticism aims to assault, reject and hurt another, and it eventually leads to contempt.

The Antidote to Criticism

A complaint focuses on a specific behaviour, but criticism attacks a person’s character. The antidote for criticism is to complain without blame by starting gently. Avoid saying “you,” which can indicate blame, and instead talk about your feelings using “I” statements to express what you feel and need.

Remember two things when formulating your soft start-up: What do I feel? What do I need?

Notice how the antidote starts with “I feel,” and naturally leads into “I need.” You can then respectfully ask your partner, "Would you be willing to...(support your need.)"

2. Contempt

The second negative communication pattern is contempt. When you communicate with contempt, you are truly being mean. In contempt, you will treat others with disrespect, mock them with sarcasm, call them names, make fun of and mimic them in a cruel way, or use body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing. The aim of contempt is to make the other person feel despised, guilty, ashamed, and worthless.

Contempt goes far beyond the damage of criticism. Contempt is fueled by long-harboured negative thoughts about your partner. Regular contempt in a relationship indicates that a break-up or a divorce is near.

The Antidote to Contempt

Contempt comes from moral superiority. Examples of contempt include sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humour. Contempt is destructive and defeating. It is the greatest predictor of divorce, and it must be repaired and ultimately avoided.

The antidote to contempt is to build appreciation and respect in your relationship. One good practice is to express appreciation, gratitude, affection, and respect in small daily ways as often as possible.

Because of the built-in negativity bias that we all have, Gottman shares the 5:1 “magic ratio” of positive to negative interactions that a relationship must have to succeed. If you have five or more positive interactions for every negative interaction, then you will make regular deposits into your relationship bank account. This keeps your relationship healthy.

3. Defensiveness

The third negative communication pattern is defensiveness. Defensiveness is usually a response to criticism. Defensiveness is usually prevalent when a relationship is not going well. When you feel unjustly criticized, you will likely respond defensively.

The Antidote to Defensiveness

Defensiveness is defined as self-protection through righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off criticism. Instead, a non-defensive response expresses the acceptance of joint responsibility, the admission of fault if need be, and the understanding of your partner’s perspective.

Defensiveness is actually a way of completely blaming and shaming your partner instead of owning your part in your difficult relationship dynamic. As a result, the problem is not resolved and the conflict escalates further. The antidote is to accept responsibility for your part of the conflict.

4. Stonewalling

The fourth negative relationship pattern is stonewalling. Stonewalling is a response to contempt. Stonewalling occurs when you withdraw from the relationship, shut down, and stop responding to your partner. Rather than confronting the issues in the relationship, people who stonewall evade connection by tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviours.

It takes time for the negativity created by the first three negative communication patterns to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable “out.” But stonewalling can easily become a "cop-out" an "easy-out" and a bad habit.

And unfortunately, stonewalling isn’t easy to stop as a coping mechanism. Stonewalling is the result of feeling emotionally and physiologically flooded. When you stonewall, you are not in a calm state where you can discuss things rationally.

The Antidote to Stonewalling

It is typical to stonewall when you’re feeling emotionally flooded. When you are emotionally overwhelmed, it will be difficult to engage kindly and talk clearly. If you feel like you’re stonewalling during a conflict, stop the discussion. Tell your partner that you need to take a break so that you can self-soothe your nervous system.

Avoiding a discussion when you feel emotionally flooded can stop you from saying mean things that you will later regret. When you are feeling emotionally overwhelmed stop the fight and call a timeout.

It takes at least 20 minutes before your body can physiologically calm down after a distressing interaction. During your break, make every effort to avoid righteous indignation and innocent victimhood. Do something soothing and distracting instead. Go for a walk, listen to music or breathe deeply. When your rational thoughts come back online, you can resume the discussion.

With love,



bottom of page