A couple fighting on their wedding day, which is one sign of bad communication in a relationship.

What are some signs of bad communication in a relationship? How do you know if you’re headed for a breakup?

Signs of bad communication in a relationship include frequent criticism of character, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Each of these factors can make it harder to peacefully resolve conflict.

Read more about what to avoid for a lasting relationship.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Relationships

In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John and Julie Gottman elaborate on how poor conflict management can degrade a marriage over time. They use the metaphor of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the biblical Book of Revelation to describe four negative communication styles that can cause serious harm to a relationship. These four horsemen are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, all signs of bad communication in a relationship.

1. Criticism

This isn’t just voicing a complaint or critique, which focus on specific instances or actions. Criticism, as per the Gottmans’ definition, involves attacking your partner’s personality or character, usually with the intent of making someone right and someone wrong. It often includes blame and generalizations (such as “you always…” or “you never…”).

2. Contempt

This is when one person feels superior to others. It includes sarcasm, cynicism, sneering, mockery, and eye-rolling. Contempt is destructive to a relationship because it makes the other person feel despised and worthless. This horseman is considered the most harmful one as it conveys disgust and disrespect.

3. Defensiveness

This horseman often enters when criticism and contempt have been present. Instead of addressing the issue, the defensive partner redirects the focus onto themselves, behaving as if they are the victim. Defensiveness also escalates conflict rather than resolving it, as it justifies your own actions and blames the problem on your partner. 

4. Stonewalling

This horseman arrives when a person withdraws from the interaction, shutting down and closing themselves off from their partner. This typically happens as a response to feeling physiologically overwhelmed, and it often takes the form of looking away, silence, monosyllabic answers, changing the subject, or physically leaving the situation without explanation. When one partner goes into stonewalling mode, it can make the other partner feel ignored or abandoned, further escalating the conflict.

The 4 Signs of Bad Communication in a Relationship

Becca King

Becca’s love for reading began with mysteries and historical fiction, and it grew into a love for nonfiction history and more. Becca studied journalism as a graduate student at Ohio University while getting their feet wet writing at local newspapers, and now enjoys blogging about all things nonfiction, from science to history to practical advice for daily living.

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