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7 Toxic Communication Patterns Explained

by | Jun 11, 2020

Healthy communication leads to a healthy connection with others.  Likewise, unhealthy communication leads to an unhealthy connection.

As a couples therapist, there are seven common communication breakdowns I see happening with the couples I work with.  Once couples learn what these are and how they damage their relationships, it becomes much easier to correct them, producing healthier communication patterns that lead to healthier connections and relationships.

Jumping to Conclusions

There are two ways that someone can jump to conclusions.  Both are cognitive distortions, which means that they are inaccurate, skewed, habitual ways of thinking.  These can have devastating consequences.

Mind-reading:  This is an extremely common mistake that tricks you into thinking that you actually know what someone else is thinking or why they are doing something.  Mind-reading involves making an assumption and being convinced that you are correct. It’s important to clarify, ask questions, and seek to understand someone else, rather than assume you know what they’re thinking or how they feel.

Fortune Telling:  This involves thinking you know what will happen in the future.  Common examples of this distortion involve “what if” statements, catastrophizing, and predicting future outcomes with certainty.  This can lead to a sense of dread, anxiety, or panic.  Always consider multiple possibilities and unconvince yourself that you know the answer.


If you are more eager to prove your rightness rather than improve the relationship or foster understanding, you may be judgmental.  Judgment uses a “my viewpoint is the only viewpoint” mentality.  It often happens when there’s unmet expectations in the relationship.  Before you jump to judgment, ask yourself, “have I already made a decision?”  Proving yourself right isn’t listening and if you want a healthy connection, seek first to understand.


This is simply using unkind names for yourself or others to categorize and generalize.  It often leads to blame, fault finding, discouragement, and anger.  It’s a way for someone to avoid having to deal with someone.  Attempt to find a more positive approach to look at someone using gratitude.  Here’s some examples:

Instead of labeling someone as “emotional,” say, “I appreciate your tenderness.”

Instead of labeling someone as “selfish,” say “I appreciate your ability to communicate your needs.”

Instead of labeling someone as “controlling” say, “I appreciate your need for order.”

Instead of labeling someone as “forgetful,” say “I appreciate your fun and free-spirited nature.”

Instead of labeling someone as “manipulative,” say “I appreciate your desire for us to make progress.”

The next four mistakes are referred to as the 4 Horsemen. John Gottman created these after years of interviews and research studies.  He’s renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction.


Stonewalling is all about shutting the other person out by avoiding or initiating the silent treatment.  Instead of restoration, it actually causes conflict escalation or the couple giving up. It often occurs when you’re feeling flooded (emotionally overwhelmed) so instead of storming off or shutting down, try to communicate that you need a break.  Take care of yourself and learn to self-soothe.  Ask yourself what your feelings are behind the silence? Then when you’re ready, you can come back and work toward a productive compromise or solution.


Instead of listening and seeking to understand the one expressing a concern, the other person jumps to placing blame and shrugging off responsibilities. This is defensiveness.  It’s self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in attempt to ward off a perceived attack.  The minute you get defensive, you stop listening, and build a wall.  It leaves the other person feeling unheard, uncared for, and hopeless.  Instead, seek to listen, don’t be so quick to defend, and pay attention to your side of the street.  Take responsibility for the ways that you contribute to the situation.


Classic examples of contempt include dismissing, expressing disgust, sarcasm, degrading the other person, eye rolling, name calling, mimicking, and other disrespectful/demeaning language.  Contempt sends the message that “I’m better than you.”  It’s the most destructive of the 4 horsemen.  To combat this pattern, take a look at yourself.  Admit that you’re not perfect either.  Have compassion and forgiveness.  Listen to the other person with the intent to engage, understand and learn, not with the intent to counter with your point.  Build up admiration in your relationship and express your needs respectfully.


Evaluating someone based on your perceptions of their performance, intentions, motivations and their level of care and concern is criticism.  Criticism is different than a complaint because it attack’s a person’s character rather than focusing on a specific situation or behavior.  It leads people to deflect, defend, or explain themselves.  To counter criticism, ask questions rather than make accusations.  Take a more gentle approach, using I rather than you, providing a compliment or something positive to go with the complaint.  And always remember that it takes three to five affirmations to counter or balance out one criticism of the other person.

Healthy communication is a skill that you learn; it doesn’t usually happen automatically.  If attempts at communicating with your partner leave you frustrated, hopeless, or angry, you’re not alone.  A couples therapist is trained to help teach you how to be more aware of when you’re using these 7 conversation mistakes and provide you with the tools to have a more productive approach to talking and connecting with your partner.

About Kristi | View Profile
Kristi Schwegman is a psychotherapist specializing in helping couples develop healthy relationships, whether dating, engaged, or married. She also draws from her Christian-based approach to lead individuals in becoming aware of the limiting beliefs that can get them stuck.
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