Communication killers: How arguing can be lethal

Conflict can allow couples to solve problems, but dysfunctional communication with your partner could hurt their health. Social scientist of human behavior Samantha J. Shebib, Ph.D., offers ways to improve communication. (UAB)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Picture a relationship: A disagreement starts, someone complains and the other person becomes defensive. It is a tale as old as time. 

The University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Samantha J. Shebib, Ph.D., is an expert in the field of conflict, and her research is focused on learning to change people’s destructive or dysfunctional communication to more functional and productive ways. 

“One of the interesting paradoxes we experience in life is that relationships have the potential to be tremendously beneficial and awfully harmful to us,” said Shebib, an assistant professor and associate scientist in the College of Arts and SciencesDepartment of Communication Studies and associate editor of Relationship Research News. “It encompasses both the bright and the dark.” 

Shebib is notably known for her dark side perspective — shedding light on the paradoxical, dialectical, hidden and forbidden facets of human relating. There are often positive silver linings in seemingly dark relational contexts. 

“By better understanding the dark, we can begin to reap the benefits inflicted from our pain,” Shebib said. “We know based on research it is not the mere frequency with which you argue that predicts the demise of your relationship; it is actually how you argue that predicts the relational dissolution. Conflict can be beneficial in a marriage. It can allow you to solve problems and gain a different perspective and understanding. So, with everything dark, there is some brightness to it, and with everything bright, there’s also darkness.” 

For example, high-conversation-oriented families can be associated with perceptions of helicopter parenting, she says. 

One of the reasons Shebib studies conflict is that it is inevitable, and the consequences it has on personal health and relational health can be devasting if not communicated constructively and productively. 

“Growing up, my parents were very destructive and dysfunctional when handling conflict, and it was very hard dealing with that as a child. So much so, this is what I do for a living — study conflict,” she said. 

We cannot change who we are as a person, but we can change our behavior 

There are four things to look out for in a relationship during conflict, notably known as psychologist John Gottman’s “four horsemen of the apocalypse.” Gottman says couples who divorce are likely to exhibit a pattern of conflict that includes criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. Most interestingly, Gottman’s research suggests that, within the first three minutes of an interaction, the presence of these forms of communication can predict divorce with an accuracy rate of over 90 percent, Shebib says. 

“We all know certain communicative behaviors, like yelling or screaming, are bad, right? But how can people change their destructive communication once it’s become such a habit in their relationship? My overall goal is to answer just that,” Shebib said. “Each of these destructive forms has an antidote that can help people work through conflict.”  

Criticism: Verbally attacking personality or character 

Criticism attacks the person for who they are, whereas a behavioral complaint focuses on a specific action that person could have done. 

Shebib suggests starting the conversation gently; talk about feelings using “I” statements and express a positive need. So instead of saying to one’s husband, “Why are you so lazy? You never put the toilet seat down,” rephrase it and say, “Can you please put the toilet seat down?” The first statement is a criticism because it is a personal attack, which can lead people to feel hurt. This can trigger an escalation of conflict that includes the other, more-deadly horsemen. The antidote to a criticism is a complaint that focuses on a specific behavior without assigning blame.  

Defensiveness: Victimizing oneself to ward off a perceived attack and reverse the blame 

“Defensiveness involves defending oneself by communicating ‘It’s not me. It’s you,’” Shebib said. “One defensive behavior that has been researched immensely is mind reading, and mind reading statements often include the words ‘you always’ or ‘you never’— which are particularly toxic.”  

According to Gottman’s research, the antidote to defensiveness is to fight the impulse to defend oneself and accept at least some partial responsibility for the issue at hand. Take responsibility, accept the other person’s perspective, and offer an apology for any wrongdoing. 

Samantha J. Shebib, Ph.D. (Lexi Coon) 
Contempt: Comments that belittle and demean the other person 

“Contempt is the deadliest and most lethal of the four horsemen,” Shebib said. “Contempt communicates an air of superiority and is often the byproduct of longstanding problems in a relationship. When we communicate contemptuously, we are just plain mean by mocking the situation with sarcasm, or we might use name-calling or putdowns. In nonverbal behaviors, while there is facial expression for contempt, it is also communicated with mimicking body language, eye-rolling or even sneering. 

“Particularly interesting, and why it is the most poisonous of all the relationship killers, research has found that couples who are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness such as colds and flu than couples who are not contemptuous, due to their weakened immune system. Contempt literally destroys psychological, emotional and physical health.” 

The antidote? According to Gottman’s research, build a culture of appreciation; remember a partner’s positive qualities and find gratitude for positive actions. 

Stonewalling: Withdrawing to avoid conflict and conveying disapproval, distance, separation 

Stonewalling is when someone withdraws from the interaction, shuts down and simply stops responding to their partner. This bad habit can result in feeling physiologically flooded. When this occurs, things cannot be discussed rationally. Take a break and spend time doing something soothing and distracting.   

“When I am disagreeing with someone who is typically an avoider, we give 20 minutes to each other to avoid, because it’s also physiologically self-soothing to let your emotions cool down, so you are in that rational state to make more logical decisions,” Shebib said. “Conflict is stressful, and we know from research that stress undermines rationality. In a state of distress, we often say and do things that trigger reactive emotions in others. That’s because the ‘hot system’ kicks in. Located in our amygdala, it is triggered whenever we feel threat or danger, and results in automatic fight-or-flight reactions. If we can cool our hot emotions down, the ‘cool system’ kicks in. Located in the prefrontal cortex, it encourages us to stop and think more rationally about the situation.” 

One cannot go wrong with kindness 

“Kindness can be physically beneficial, as it increases the ‘love’ hormone oxytocin; the ‘mood’ hormone serotonin; the ‘pleasure’ hormone dopamine; and endorphins, the ‘painkiller’ hormone,” Shebib said. “It decreases the stress hormone cortisol and adrenaline, the ‘fight-or-flight’ hormone. Hugs or cuddling can release these hormones.” 

Even conflict experts make mistakes, Shebib says. “Conflict can have positive or negative effects on relationships. When disagreements are handled constructively, conflict can improve relationships. However, when handled destructively and negative patterns become pervasive, they can be extremely detrimental to our relationships.” The key is forgiveness. Forgiveness is not necessarily condoning the behavior but rather a process of releasing of hostility and resentment. 

“Be more mindful of how we complain. Do not bring up old arguments or store old grievances; destroy them before they threaten your relationship. You can rephrase things in a way that is more constructive and calmer.”