The 4 Main Toxic Communication Styles

If you want to have a great relationship, there are four main ways of communicating that you’ll really want to avoid.

These are the communication styles that research has found to be the most damaging to couples’ connection over time: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.

Pretty much every relationship features at least one or two of these, so if yours does, don’t panic.

Communicating like this is a habit, and habits can be changed.

Let’s talk about how.

Toxic Communication Style 1: Criticism

Criticism is probably the most common of the four toxic communication styles.

It can be a bit of a shock to hear that chronic criticism seriously damages relationships.

But the good news is that it’s not that difficult to notice when you’re being critical and change the habit, and it will really improve your connection with your partner when you do.

Put yourselves in their shoes for a minute – your partner saying negative things about you, pointing out (perceived) personality flaws, blaming you for stuff… it feels terrible.

When people get criticised too much, they start to feel like there’s something wrong with them.

And they don’t feel good about the person who’s criticised them.

So what should you do instead when a critical thought pops into your head?

If you feel like (or start to hear yourself) criticising your partner, stop, take a minute, and think about what’s really going on for you.

When we feel like blaming our partners for something, it’s usually because our needs are not getting met.

As Marshall B. Rosenberg tells us,

“Every criticism, judgment, diagnosis, and expression of anger is the tragic expression of an unmet need.”

Criticising your partner won’t get you any closer to getting those needs met.

It will just make them feel self-conscious, unappreciated, and defensive, getting you both nowhere.

So take a breath, and think for a minute about how you’re feeling and what you need.

Are you just in a bad mood or feeling insecure? What can you do to meet your own needs?

If you’re feeling ok in yourself and have a genuine complaint, share it with your partner when you’re both feeling calm.

Tell them “When x happens I feel y, because I need z.

Then ask them “Would you be willing to…?” and be open to hearing their response. Because a request like this is often just the start of a discussion or negotiation.

You can read more about this here.

Toxic Communication Style 2: Defensiveness 

The second toxic communication style which deeply damages relationships is defensiveness.

We all know defensiveness when we see it, whether it’s denying responsibility, or counter-attacking. (“No YOU’RE the problem!”)

We all get defensive sometimes when we feel blamed or attacked and like we need to protect ourselves.

But chronic defensiveness is as damaging to you as an individual as it is to your relationship.

When we’re not open to taking things on board, we miss opportunities to learn and grow.

When you find yourself feeling defensive: stop, take a minute, and ask yourself whether there might be a grain of truth in what your partner is saying.

Maybe they’re not expressing it in the ideal way, but could there be something in it?

When you look at things from their perspective, can you understand what’s bothering them?

Is there anything you can take responsibility for?

Anything you might apologise for?

And if you’re reading this thinking “but my partner is so defensive, what can I do about it?!” check whether you’re being more critical than you realise. Defensiveness is a natural response when we feel like we’re getting criticised.

Toxic Communication Style 3: Contempt

When couples get stuck in a cycle of criticism and defensiveness, sooner or later contempt sets in.

You might get sarcastic, start taking the p***, rolling your eyes, or even calling your partner names.

If you’re talking down to your partner, or putting them down, that’s contempt.

It’s insulting, and can become abusive because of how it attacks the person’s sense of self.

We all get fed up with our partners sometimes, or think we know better than them about one thing or another.

But watch how you deal with it when you do.

None of us is perfect, but we all deserve respect.

If you find yourself feeling or expressing contempt for your partner, it’s time to practice some gratitude.

Make a conscious effort to pay attention to the things you love and appreciate about your partner.

Look for the good in them and the things they do.

Work on expressing that appreciation more.

And make these thanks and compliments as specific as possible, because those are felt to be the most genuine and meaningful.

If contempt has become a regular feature of your relationship, I would also recommend that you get some professional help such as individual or couples counselling.

(If you need help with an abusive situation, you can call Women’s Aid on 0808 2000 247 or Men’s Advice Line on 0808 801 0327.)

Toxic Communication Style 4: Stonewalling

When relationships aren’t going well, and criticism, defensiveness and contempt have become regular features, it’s really stressful.

Sometimes is gets so stressful that one or both partners shuts down on each other completely.

When you completely withdraw from interaction with your partner, we call that stonewalling.

If stonewalling is being used as a controlling behaviour alongside isolation and intimidation, your relationship may have become abusive, so please seek support. (You can call Women’s Aid on 0808 2000 247 or Men’s Advice Line on 0808 801 0327.)

However, most cases of stonewalling happen as a way of cutting out sensory stimulation when feeling attacked or overwhelmed.

When someone’s stonewalling, usual signs of engagement like eye contact and nodding disappear, and they sometimes go completely quiet.

It might look like the silent treatment, or saying “I’m fine” when you’re really not.

It can be really frustrating for the other partner when a person stonewalls, but it’s important to recognise that they’re doing it because they feel completely overwhelmed and don’t know what else to do.

As Elbert Hubbard said,

“He who does not understand your silence will probably not understand your words.”

Stonewalling is a way of trying to calm yourself down so you can think straight again.

It’s important that you listen to that instinct (or let your partner listen to it if they stonewall you) and take a break.

Take at least 20 minutes to yourself, and spend the time doing something soothing and distracting.

If you notice yourself start ruminating about how out of order your partner is, remind yourself that your objective right now is to calm yourself down so that you can get back to a more constructive place.

You can read more about this here

Resolving disagreements 

Love In Lockdown is a self-paced online course that was written to support couples through the pandemic, but it contains masses of advice for any couple who wants to get more adept at resolving disagreements. It includes videos and PDFs on how to:

  • Recognise when a disagreement is becoming unproductive and know what to do next
  • Deal with feelings of overwhelm so that they don’t get in the way of you being the parent and partner you want to be
  • Understand how your different approaches to coping with stress might cause problems in your relationship, and what each of you can do to avoid this
  • Move from irritated by to accepting of each other’s habits

You can find out more about Love In Lockdown here. If you found this article helpful please join my mailing list.