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The Short Version: Communication breakdown is one of the biggest issues couples face in relationships today. Dr. Jessica Higgins, a licensed psychologist and couples therapist, talked to us about common communication problems in relationships and what couples can do to overcome them. The “criticism loop” is when couples lead their communication with criticisms and intellect instead of emotion. Dr. Jessica said couples who practice leading with emotion and communicating from a place of vulnerability can find increased intimacy and have better arguments.
Communication, communication, communication.
All of us have heard, time and time again, just how crucial communication is for any kind of relationship. As humans, verbal communication is one of the foundations of almost every social connection we make. Our ability and desire to convey our feelings and needs using language is one of the very things that makes us human.
So it’s no wonder that something so major can cause some problems for us. Every relationship is different, and the way we communicate changes from relationship to relationship.
Intimate romantic relationships tend to bring out our most vulnerable, emotional selves, meaning very important things are at stake when two people are communicating within this kind of partnership. This is also the kind of relationship where the most communication issues arise.
Dr. Jessica Higgins, a couples therapist, explained to us some of the reasons couples struggle with communication. She said that when couples fall into a “criticism loop,” it becomes extremely difficult to have constructive and loving conversations that lead to improvements within the relationship.
“People in the United States tend to be really focused on critical thinking and how to achieve the best results,” Dr. Jessica said. “Those are important qualities, but when we bring them into relationships, big communication problems can arise.”
The way a person communicates changes based on who they are speaking to and what they’re speaking out. In the professional world, identifying weak points and bringing attention to them is a valuable and sought-after skill. So many jobs require people to make critical assessments about something and then decide what needs to be changed about it.
Evaluations within romantic partnerships usually lead with complaints or concerns. One partner will identify an action or event that troubled them in the past and then present it to their partner as an issue that needs solving.
This kind of evaluation isn’t effective communication for most interpersonal relationships. Instead of leading to constructive changes, evaluation between two romantic partners usually only leads to misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and more barriers to core emotional communication.
“It can get confusing when one relationship requires a certain set of communication skills, and another requires almost the opposite,” Dr. Jessica said. “In romantic relationships, people don’t want to feel like they’re being evaluated by their partner.”
Dr. Jessica said that unsolicited evaluations from a partner can feel threatening. “It can feel hurtful. It can be like– woah– I wasn’t asking for this kind of feedback? Where is this coming from?” Dr. Jessica said.
This usually leads to the person being evaluated becoming defensive. Their partner has evaluated them in a way that feels critical or even offensive. Once one person has moved into the defensive, the chances of a productive and calm conversation decrease dramatically.
This cycle of critical evaluation, defensiveness, and unresolved conflict is what Dr. Jessica calls the “criticism loop.” When couples are caught in this loop, they find themselves in a repeating cycle of criticism and arguments. When conflict goes unresolved for too long, serious relationship breakdowns – even breakups – occur.
According to Dr. Jessica, one of the best practices couples can adopt to avoid or get out of the criticism loop is to lead with either a reveal or a request, so that one’s partner has a better opportunity to know what their partner needs and wants. When a person evaluates their partner and shares that unsolicited evaluation, they are often speaking from a more intellectual, rather than emotional, place.
“One of the biggest issues I typically see in relationships is we’re leading with the intellect,” Dr. Jessica said. This goes back to the way Americans are prone to assess their partners critically.
“But when we’re leading with intellect, we’re not engaging our emotions. And in a relationship, our emotional bond is the glue.”
So when partners communicate from a place of intellect, they’ve neglected the very thing that their relationship is made up of – the core emotion. Speaking from a place of intellect also increases the chances that a partner will use harsh or overly critical language, making the other partner put up their walls.
Dr. Jessica said it’s important for couples to recognize that the intellectual approach is a protective strategy. “When we dig into the emotional, things can get complicated and vulnerable, and we can learn things about ourselves we didn’t know,” Dr. Jessica said. “We reveal ourselves, and that can be scary.”
Couples who are struggling with the criticism loop can try leading with the core emotion when they speak to their partner about issues in the relationship. Dr. Jessica said that when a partner reveals their emotions and allows their significant other to see them more clearly, both parties can show up with more authenticity and less defensiveness.
When couples can take a second to reassess their critical, intellect-first evaluations of their partner, they can identify the feeling within themselves that’s causing discomfort. Instead of approaching their partner with criticism, they share with their partner their deeper experience or feeling.
With the core feeling at the forefront, couples can hear each other out in a constructive and less argumentative way. Leading with core emotion equips both partners to listen to each other with love and understanding.
Like most things, leading with emotion is easier said than done. Good communication skills are a learned practice, and Dr. Jessica said that everyone can master them with the proper dedication, time, and patience. Learning to lead with emotion is an exercise in vulnerability, so it can take time to perfect the practice.
Dr. Jessica said couples can start practicing better communication by choosing their battles. She said that if something isn’t severely impacting the emotional heart of the relationship, extraneous criticisms only weaken the trust and connection between a couple.
Repeated criticisms can lead to resentment, and when there is built-up resentment, it tends to create an emotionally unsafe environment, where partners are more interested in protecting themselves rather than being emotionally open.
Defenses are already all the way up, leaving no room for emotional vulnerability. “Couples sometimes have this accumulation of resentment,” Dr. Jessica said. “It’s built up over a long time of one or both people feeling unheard, ignored, or injured. And resentment requires work to repair.”
Just like learning to be an effective communicator is hard work, so are romantic relationships. They require us to exercise emotional vulnerability at every turn, which can be scary. As scary as it can be, it’s ultimately the best thing a couple can do for their relationship. Practicing consistent emotional vulnerability will allow two people to love, listen, and understand each other better within the relationship.
Dr. Jessica has a variety of resources for couples who feel like they could use some help in the communication department. She offers two courses that are geared toward couples struggling with communication, called Shifting Criticism Into Connected Communication and Connected Couples.
“Shifting Criticsm for Connected Communication” is Dr. Jessica’s free e-guide for couples struggling with communication. The in-depth guide helps couples learn and use strategies to shift communication habits and practice emotional openness with one another.
“Fundamentally, we’re all just trying to get our needs met,” Dr. Jessica said. “When we bring an issue to our partner, we don’t want to turn them away and make them feel defensive. We want to open ourselves up and invite them in.”