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SPOT THE WARNING SIGNS – Negative Communication in Marriage

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Recently I have been seeing a cross-cultural couple at the brink of a divorce for marital therapy. Conflicts over cultural differences, power differentials, distrust and financial issues, have led to strained communication between them.


The way a couple argues is one of the predictive factors of whether the marital relationship fails. For this couple, the way that their conflicts were being managed left both parties feeling increased negativity and distrust towards each other.

According to Dr. John Gottman, a renowned marriage therapist who has conducted over 40 years of research into what makes marriages work, there are a few indicators of poor communication between a couple that predict divorce.

Warning Sign 1: HARSH START-UP

This refers to the discussion or conversation beginning with criticism and/or sarcasm.  For e.g., “Why are you always forgetting to switch off the lights you pighead!”

Research has shown that if your discussion begins with a harsh start-up, it will inevitably end on a negative note, even if there are repair attempts after. Hence, always start a conversation in the right way.  Catch yourself before uttering words that you regret.


Criticisms, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.

Criticism usually contains the words “you always” or “you never”. While we tend to have something to complain about our partner, we need to be mindful that it does not become an expression of negative opinion or feeling about their character or personality, which then becomes a criticism.

Contempt is a sense of superiority over your partner, a form of disrespect. Examples include sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, mockery and hostile humor. Contempt is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It is often fueled by long simmering negative thoughts about your partner, likely stemming from unresolved differences.

Defensiveness is a way of protecting oneself from potential hurt by “attacking” one’s partner through blaming. It carries the message that one is the innocent victim while the other is at fault and is usually in reaction to criticism or contempt.

Stonewalling happens when one party eventually tunes out of a couple’s discussion or conflict, usually after both parties have tried communicating with each other through unhelpful methods such as criticizing.

Warning Sign 3: FLOODING

This happens when one partner experiences an overwhelming physical and psychological sensation after the other partner’s attack.

Warning Sign 4: BODY LANGUAGE

When flooding happens, the body will reflect signs such as a rise in blood pressure, increased heart rate, and adrenaline rushes. This causes the body to go into a fight or flight mode. The affected party would show signs of emotional distress through their body language such as distancing themselves or fighting back.

Other signs of unhealthy communication include bad memories and failed repair attempts.

Bad memories are usually unresolved differences that are brought up again in current conflicts that can escalate the conflict situation between a couple.

Repair attempts are the efforts made by a couple to de-escalate tension during a conflict to prevent flooding. However, these attempts fail when there is an occurrence of flooding. The couple would then, not hear or see each other’s efforts in making restitution as the four horsemen gets heightened during the conflicts.

All these indicators are warning signs of a marriage going down a slippery slope.  The good news is that these poor communication habits can be unlearnt and abandoned.  Couples can learn new and helpful ways of communication to rebuild their marriage.

  • I-Statements: Instead of starting with an accusation, try starting with an ‘I statement’ expressing 3Fs – Fact, Feeling and Future. For e.g. “I feel upset when I see the lights on even when there is no one in the room. I hope in future, you can be more mindful to turn off the lights when you leave the room.”

  • Take Timeouts: When both are calm, discuss how each one will indicate the need for a timeout and for how long. For e.g. one might just show a ‘T’ sign with your arms, another might say ‘timeout’.  When we discuss something that raises our temperature, be aware of your own body eg face flushing, and call for a timeout to avoid flooding.

  • Learn to self soothe: During the timeout, learn how to calm yourself down before returning to the conversation. Some might take a walk outside, listen to music, do some household chores.

To learn more about communicating with your spouse, join our FREE Marriage Enrichment workshop on 9, 16 and 23 September to identify your strengths and growth areas as a couple, resolve conflicts and work together better as a team.  Sign up at http://go.fycs.org/MEP or call/whatsapp 97914100 for more enquiries.

Written by: Sharlene Teo, Senior Counsellor, Fei Yue Community Services


Reflection Questions

  1. Do I use any of the negative communication methods described in the article?

  2. What is 1 thing I can stop and 1 thing I can start, to create a healthy communication pattern?


Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (2nd ed., pp. 31-49). Harmony Books.