Last week, we looked at two forms of harmful communication, how they could negatively affect a relationship and alternative ways to communicate so that resolution occurs positively and healthily.

This week, we continue our journey into this topic.

Harmful communication style #1 – Contempt.

Contempt is a communication style that expresses feelings of inferiority, where the receiver of contempt feels looked down upon, lesser than, or scorned by the communicator.

This is a very destructive form of communication, and when treated in this manner, it leads to feelings of inadequacy, shame, or despise by your partner.

Some typical behaviors of contemptuous communication include:

  • Name-calling, belittling, swearing, or being disrespectful.
  • Gaslighting or denying the importance of the other’s feelings.
  • Pressuring others to do things against their core values.
  • Humiliating, insulting, or ridiculing in front of others, especially family members and children.

 Example of contemptuous communication:

“You spent how long cooking this meal? It tastes terrible! You couldn’t follow the recipe; you’re an idiot.”

This manner of speech only serves to hurt and is, in my profession, not surprisingly, a significant predictor of divorce.

Harmful communication style #2 – Criticism.

Unsurprisingly, criticism towards others tends to elicit a negative response. Criticism is a harmful communication pattern as it immediately puts others on the defensive and causes negative emotions. 

Expressing dissatisfaction or sharing a grievance is a part of a healthy relationship. We need this to help guide a marriage, learn what the other needs, and understand our needs. However, when a grievance turns into outright criticism, a person feels attacked or judged. 


“You went to the hairdressers? You look worse than when you went in! Like I said, you would look much better if you let your hair grow out.”

Most people can not deal with long-term criticism, yet unfortunately, critical people are often unaware of their actions. They believe they are “helping” or “improving” their partner and do not understand why they become defensive in response. 

Using criticism as a form of communication slowly destroys a relationship; it erodes self-esteem and slowly removes the love and positive feelings others may have felt for you. 

If you use criticism or contempt as a form of communication, here are two techniques to help you express yourself so that people will be receptive to your insight, feelings, and complaints.

Assertive communication method #1 – Express complaints by using gentle inquiry.

Words hold tremendous power when used to elicit either negative or positive responses. Sometimes, we may have the best intentions in our wording yet are unaware that we are perceived as hostile, aggressive, or apathetic.

Individuals proficient in assertive communication prioritize the consequences of their words. When faced with problem-solving scenarios, they employ considerate questioning using gentle inquiry rather than confrontational strategies.

For example, Your partner offered to go to the store to pick up groceries for dinner. However, despite having a list, they forgot most items when they arrived home and returned with chocolate and desserts instead.

This situation is very frustrating as it requires either scrounging in the cupboards to make something new or going to the store to get the correct items. 

It would be effortless to lose your temper, either grab the keys and say, “I will just do it myself,” or get angry at your partner. You are justified to feel annoyed, but instead of using anger to communicate, try using the following:

“I feel”… Describe your feelings.

“When you”… Describe the behavior that bothers you.

“Because”… Describe how this behavior affects you.

“I need”… Request the changes you want the person to make.

For example:

I feel (annoyed) when you (come back from the shops without the right groceries) because I feel (like I have to do it myself and can’t rely on you for help). I need you to (remember to read the list and be mindful of buying what is on there) this way (I can get the kid’s homework done while you help with the shopping), meaning (we can spend more time together later). 

Example #2

You hear your wife talking on the phone with her best friend about your sex life. This hurts you deeply as you don’t talk about this with your mates.

I heard you speaking with your friend about our sex life, and I feel (very hurt and betrayed by this) because I feel (this is private, and I am not comfortable having others know about the intimacy we share). I understand (that you need to talk with someone, but could you please refrain from sharing intimate details with others). I need to trust that (what happens in our bedroom is between us, and if you want to talk things through, please come and speak to me first).

Does this formula work every time? Of course not. However, it is a very effective form of communication when used correctly. 

Assertive communication method #2: Give and receive praise readily.

People like hearing that they are appreciated, especially by their partner. Instead of trying to change someone through criticism or contempt, compliment the aspects of your partner that you genuinely respect.

 If you need to request your partner to make a change, consider using a genuine compliment while maintaining authenticity to your feelings and needs. For example :

“Thank you for washing the car; I appreciate the help. If I can ask, you put the bucket and rags back in the garage next time. I always do it, and I would appreciate it if you could pop them back in the same place.”

Here, you’re showing genuine appreciation for a chore well done while also asking for a small change.

Praising someone opens you up to see the positives; this way, when a problem arises, you can look back on all you appreciate about your partner instead of dwelling on the negatives. A healthy, happy couple sees the positive in each other; they can look past minor annoyances and let go of these so that when a problem does arise, they can address it from a place of mutual respect and love.

Effective communication plays a crucial role in every relationship. Engaging in open, kind, and honest dialogue enhances your connection with your partner and creates a shared history. This foundation of shared experiences enables you to confidently tackle problems and fortify your relationship.

“Dr. Fiore,” the voice on the phone pleaded, “I need anger management classes right away. I blew up at my girlfriend last night and she said it’s over until I get help”.

As Kevin recounted the first night of class, he and his girlfriend had argued in the car over which route to take home from a party. Events progressed from mild irritation, to yelling and name calling.

Things escalated at home. He tried to escape, but she followed him from room to room, demanding resolution of the conflict. He became angry, defensive and intimidating.

Frightened, she left. Later, she left an anguished message saying that she loved him, but couldn’t deal with his angry, hurtful outbursts. Kevin said that he normally is a very “nice” and friendly person. But, on this occasion, his girlfriend had been drinking before the party. In his view, she was irrational, and non-stop in criticism. He tried to reason with her, but it just made things worse. Finally, as Kevin saw things, in desperation he “lost it” and became enraged.

How should Kevin have handled this situation? What could he have done differently? What actions should you take in similar situations?

Option 1: Time-out

Take a 20 minute time-out (but commit to returning later to work on the issue). Take a walk. Calm yourself down. Breath deeply. Meditate. Do something else for awhile.

New research by John Gottman, Ph.D., at the University of Washington indicates that when you and your partner argue, your pulse rate goes above 100 beats per minute, and you enter a physiological state called DPA (diffuse physiological arousal). Once there, it becomes nearly impossible to solve the problem. You lose perspective. Your reasoning ability, memory, and judgment, greatly decline.

Taking a time-out allows both of you to return to your normal state of mind.
It is neither healthy or necessary for you to explode as a result of being provoked by your partner. Our recommendation: Turn the heat down rather than intensifying the pressure.

Option 2: Interact differently

Many couples like Keith and his partner develop patterns of behavior that create miscommunication and conflict. Do you interact in one, or more, of these ways?

  • Inattention – simply ignoring your partner when you shouldn’t. This is also called stonewalling, or being emotionally unavailable when your partner needs you, or not speaking to your partner for long periods because you are upset with them.
  • Intimidation – engaging in behavior intended to make your partner do things out of fear. This includes yelling, screaming, threatening, and posturing in a threatening way.
    Manipulation – doing or saying things to influence your partner, for your benefit, instead of theirs.
  • Hostility – using sarcasm, put-downs, and antagonistic remarks. Extreme or prolonged hostility leads to contempt – a major predictor of divorce.
  • Vengeance – the need to “get even” with your partner for a grievance you have against them. Many dysfunctional couples “keep score,” and are constantly trying to “pay back” each other for offenses.
  • Criticism – involves attacking someone’s personality or character, rather than a specific behavior, often coupled with blame. Like contempt, criticism is a second major predictor of divorce.

Option 3. Positive interactions

Start by actually listening not only to what your partners says, but what he or she means. Partners in conflict are not listening to understand; rather, they listen with their answer running because they are defensive. Unfortunately, defensiveness is another predictor of divorce.

Stick to the issue at hand. Seems obvious but is very hard to do in the heat of battle. Focus and stay in the present.

Learn to forgive

Research by Peter Larson, Ph.D., at the Smalley Relationship Center, suggests a huge relationship between marriage satisfaction and forgiveness. As much as one-third of marriage satisfaction is related to forgiveness!

Communicate your feelings and needs. Tell your partner how you feel about what they do, instead of accusing them of deliberately offensive behavior. Use “I” statements rather than accusatory, or “you,” statements. Learn to communicate unmet needs so that your partner can better understand and respond to you. For instance, If you are feeling fear, it may be your need for emotional safety and security that is not being met; communicating this is far more effective than lashing out at your partner in an angry tirade.

Guest Article by Sherry Gaba

Conflict is difficult for many people. People with codependency often learn to avoid conflict due to fear of abandonment, rejection, and/or criticism. Learning conflict resolution skills makes it easier to handle conflict effectively so you learn not to fear confrontation. Often with the need to people please and receive outside validation, codependents avoid confrontation.

The following are skills you can use to lean into conflict in a healthy way rather then avoid it all together:

  1. Prepare by getting clear about the problem.Clarify your position by writing down talking points as reminders and to keep you focused.
  2. Practice your talking points with a friend or in the mirror.
  3. Use deep breathing to control your anxiety prior to the meeting. Take conscious breaths during the discussion.
  4. Be ready to experience the “newness” that change brings. If you can shift your thinking from a focus on the unknown to recognize that change involves “newness”—new things, people, places, and ideas—with at least some of it bringing excitement and interest, you’ll feel a whole lot better about it.
  5. Be clear about your bottom line and the things you are willing to negotiate. Understand that negotiation is part of the process and expect it.
  6. Look for points of agreement. Find things that you agree on and talk about how to find a win-win solution that benefits everyone.
  7. Do your homework. It helps to have a good idea of what the other person wants to strengthen your position in negotiations.
  8. Use assertive language. “I want. . .” Or “I would like. . .” Ask what the other person wants, then work toward a solution that works for both of you.
  9. Ask for clarification or details about anything you are unclear on.
  10. Take a break. If you feel overwhelmed by the process, take a break. Go to the restroom or get a drink and take some deep breaths.
  11. Give positive feedback. Let the other person know that you see their point of view, or agree on certain key issues.
  12. Table it. If you do not get the minimum you are asking for, suggest that you table the discussion for now and talk about it again later. Don’t give up or give in unless you are certain you have reached a stalemate.


Download a FREE Worksheet PDF file called “Areas of Change” that will help you develop the techniques discussed in this article.

Sherry Gaba helps singles navigate the dating process to find the love of their lives. Take her quiz to find out if you’re struggling with co-dependency, sign up for a 30-minute strategy session, or learn more about how to get over a break-up. For more information visit or sign up today for Sherry’s online group coaching program. Buy her books Love Smacked: How to Break the Cycle of Relationship Addiction and Codependency to find Everlasting Love or Infinite Recovery