We are often asked what is the biggest cause of divorce. Our answer is always communication or lack of it. According to relationship researchers at the University of Washington and The Gottman institute, toxic methods of communication like habitual criticism and contemptuous attitudes are top predictors for divorce. The way couples speak to each other, communicate their needs, and resolve differences can have a huge impact on a relationship. Constant criticism, complaints, disdain and dissatisfaction gradually chip away at a person’s self-esteem and make it increasingly difficult for couples to communicate in a healthy way.
Of course, many separating individuals may argue that criticism of their partner’s behaviour is entirely valid, and we’re not suggesting that shutting up and putting up with it is the answer. However, in some cases couples miss the opportunity to change this behaviour and strengthen their relationships due to a failure to communicate properly. Instead, they let their resentment and criticism take over – and then it’s too late.
The way you discuss relationship problems is key. Criticism over a certain behaviour can very easily become a personal attack, which leads to defensiveness, guilt or anger, and a productive conversation becomes impossible. Criticism can also be used as a method of self-preservation – it’s far easier to get annoyed and angry about something minor and petty than face up to the bigger issue beneath the surface, or allow ourselves to be vulnerable, ask for help, or consider whether we need to change the way we react to certain things.
According to emeritus professor of psychology John Gottman, an award-winning speaker and researcher in divorce prediction and marital stability, this kind of contemptuous behaviour is routinely found in couples on the brink of separation, dubbing the most common traits as ‘the four horsemen of the apocalypse’: contempt, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling (withdrawing emotionally from your partner). Each of these behaviours effectively shuts down any change of empathetic and productive conversation, shifting the blame onto the other person and refusing to meet in the middle or examine their own behaviour.
We see the aftermath of these communication habits all too often in our divorce clients, almost as if they have long been preparing themselves for the potential animosity of separation. And while it may be too late to rekindle the relationship at this point, ditching the criticism and contempt is still a worthwhile way to approach communication during separation if you want to minimise stress and antagonism.
The main way to do this is to shift your attitude from the problem to the solution. Instead of focusing on your partner’s faults or failings, think about what you need or would like to happen instead. Instead of criticising the person, look at the behaviour and try to explain how it affects you.
Similarly, try to keep the discussion in the present, instead of dragging up a litany of past offences and resentments. Deal with issues as they arise instead of letting the little things build up and up until they become a huge problem. Be honest, direct, and talk openly about how you both react to conflict. If you struggle with guilt, defensiveness, criticism, or anger, it may be worth seeking professional help to work on your communication skills, or attend couples counselling. And don’t underestimate the power of body language – eye-rolling, sighing, ‘the silent treatment’, and outright disdain all break down communication, effectively signalling that you’re not prepared to listen to the other person’s point of view. Learn to listen, stay calm, and try to put yourself in your partner’s shoes for a moment.
Whether you’re going through a tough patch or in the midst of separation, communication is key. Relationships require compromise, cooperation, and understanding – even when they’re over. We always recommend that separating couples try collaborative, out-of-court methods of dispute resolution like mediation, which fosters positive and productive communication and aim to minimise stress and animosity.
To speak to an experienced family lawyer about mediation, divorce, and working collaboratively with your ex through separation, get in touch with us at www.franceslindsay.co.uk. Our offices are based in Maidenhead and our services cover the whole of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire including Windsor, Cookham, Marlow, Beaconsfield, Burnham, Farnham Common and the Thames Valley.