More communication tools for new parents - Take a Break!

 In our last installments, we discussed the most common places in which couples with new babies get stuck in communication. We discussed Gottman's “Four Horsemen”, the four most toxic interactive styles that might show up in conflict, and we discussed the “softened start-up,” the process of initiating conflict conversations in a respectful and open manner. In this installment, we will discuss DPA and tools for managing individual upset.

When we get into a heated discussion with our partner, our heart rates will often become elevated and our IQ seems to drop by about 20 points. John Gottman refers to this experience as diffuse physiological arousal, or DPA. Otherwise known as “fight or flight”, it is the process by which our ancestors were able to survive in the wild. Heart rate increases, adrenaline pumps, our senses sharpen, all preparing us to withstand or flee an attack. This worked great when we lived in the bushes and had to be sure to not be a hungry tiger's next meal, but now it can get in our way and make conflict resolution nearly impossible.

When we combine the difficulties inherent in communicating while under the influence of DPA with the demands and realities of a new baby, many couples will slip into a self propagating cycle of withdrawal and avoidance which leads to further disconnection and loneliness.

One effective solution to taming DPA, is to become more adept at noticing when you or your partner are being “carried away” by your over-arousal and develop an agreement as to how to call for and implement a break. Agree on a word or phrase that can be initiated by either partner, like “time out” or “Broncos”. When either partner recognizes they are flooded, they can utter this phrase, and the couple agrees to take a break from the discussion and from each other. Gottman recommends no less than 30 minutes, (the minimum amount of time that the body needs to clear out the stress related hormones associated with DPA), and no less than one day. Any longer than a day and the time out practice can be used to avoid the discussion altogether. If you must wait longer than a day due to the usual constraints of life, schedule a time to complete the discussion.

During your time apart, instead of mulling over how your partner wronged you or is inconsiderate, take some time to reflect on their humanity, their positive intentions, and the role you may be playing in deepening the conflict. Take some time to self-soothe by walking, taking deep breathes, reading, or doing anything else that will help your nervous system settle.

A couple that can reengage in the discussion of difficult topics from a calmer place will be more flexible, kinder, and more open to compromise than the couple caught in the throws of their runaway nervous system.

If you and your partner are having problems communicating and would like to speak with a professional counselor please call 303-815-8538 or visit us at


Communication skills for new parents

In our last installment, we discussed the Gottmans' theory of “softened startup”. The idea being that how we initiated a possibly conflictual conversation had a tremendous effect on how that conversation may resolve. In particular, we outlined the “four horsemen,” the four most destructive ways in which couples disrupt communication. Again, they are:

  1. Criticism

  2. Defensiveness

  3. Contempt

  4. Stonewalling


In this blog, we will discuss the proposed remedies or ways to work effectively through when the horsemen show up.

Criticism usually shows up as complaining in such a way that attacks your partner in a global sense, labeling his or her personality as defective. Labels, like “slob” or “jerk”, tend to leave no room for nuance or reciprocity. They inevitably create defensiveness in one's partner and lead nowhere. The Gottmans suggest shifting how we approach our complaints. Instead of using “you” statements such as “you're always late” or “you're a slob”, use I statements describing your feelings and the situation that led to them. It's important to be as objective and neutral as possible when describing the upsetting behavior. For example “You're always late” can be shifted to “I feel angry when you arrive later than you said you would,” You're inconsiderate” can be shifted to “I feel sad when you go out with your friends without asking me if I want to come.”

Defensiveness is when we attempt to protect ourselves from perceived attacks, usually criticism. We fight back without acknowledging our own responsibility or contribution to a problem. The antidote here is simply to back up, take a deep breath, and take responsibility. We are human, admit it and you are halfway towards moving towards a solution.

Contempt is the Gottmans' strongest predictor of divorce. Rolling your eyes, making faces, condescending lectures. These all imply that we are superior to our partner. They are dismissive and potentially abusive. The antidote here is to express appreciation and respect. Daily. Throughout the day. “Thank you for cooking” or “You look nice today” can go a long way towards building goodwill, fondness, and admiration.

Stonewalling is when we give absolutely no feedback on what our partners say or do. In their research, the Gottmans found that 85% of stonewallers were men and that despite the “stoney” facade, their pulse was often elevated even when simply sitting still. This implied to them that stonewalling was really an attempt to limit incoming stimulus as the listener tries to regulate their internal state. Unfortunately, as someone shuts out their partner, the partner becomes frustrated and pursues them further, leading to a feedback cycle of pursuing and distancing. As an antidote, if this happens to you, it becomes necessary to take responsibility for your own internal state. You can do this by acknowledging your upset and communicating this to your partner. “I feel kind of charged up and upset right now. Can you give me a couple minutes to settle down?” You take a break, you soothe yourself and when ready, come back into contact with your partner.

Once you and your partner become familiar with the four horsemen and their antidotes, you can approach your conflicts with a more considerate and measured approach and greatly increase your chances of moving through conflict to solutions. And when your are able to resolve your conflicts amicably, the whole family is happier.

Tools for new parents

In my work, I often work with couples with a newborn or very young child. For many couples, the simple fact that they have gotten to the point where they are seeking counseling can be disheartening. But for couples with a newborn, it can be even more discouraging, as they feel like they “should be” enjoying their lives as new parents, delighting in their baby and each other. What they don't realize is that it is very common for a parental relationship to come under strain with the arrival of a baby. Aside from the joys of the miracle of bringing a child into the world, there are several new stressors as well, from maternal recovery and hormones, to sleep deprivation and the logistics of coordinating schedules and meeting each new unexpected challenge.

            While it is important to have a strong relationship for couples themselves, it is equally important for the new child. In the words of John and Julie Gottman, “the greatest gift you can give your baby is a happy and strong relationship between the two of you.” In their studies of parent child interaction, the Gottmans found that irritability, hostility, and fighting led to poorer parent-child interaction. And when parents are less attuned to the baby's cues, signals that the baby is hungry or needs attention, for instance, the baby is at risk for underdevelopment of the neural pathways that underlay bonding and attachment.

            Conflict and the resolution of conflict (or lack of resolution) is often the largest contributor to unease and disconnection in relationship, and so the purpose of this series is to present various tools for couples to navigate conflict.  The Gottmans offer several tools in many of their books and the one we will focus on today is called “softened startup.” “Startup” is the moment when you bring up an issue with your partner. The way you approach this can be either “harsh” or “soft”, depending on the style, tone, and phrasing with which you approach the issue. The Gottmans estimate that the way you approach a conflict conversation has a direct effect on its outcome over 96% of the time. In their work, they identified what they have termed “the four horsemen”, four attitudes or stances that will poison the process and lead to arguing rather than resolution.


The Four Horsemen


1.      Criticism – When we begin a conversation with criticism or blaming (i.e. “You're always late” or “you are an inconsiderate jerk”), it will usually push our partner into a defensive posture. Rather than hearing the complaint and being willing to engage or work on the problem, they will most likely fight back (“well, you never help around the house”), deny, or shut down.

2.      Defensiveness – what happens when we feel criticized. You defend yourself.

3.      Contempt- This is best represented by rolling your eyes. It implies a sense of disgust and superiority. This is one of the greatest predictors of separation or divorce.

4.      Stonewalling – This is when we simply cut off all communication, refusing or avoiding discussion altogether. Unfortunately this usually results in our partner getting even more upset.


            When these toxic behaviors are present, relationship has little chance of survival, Fortunately, as we begin to become aware of these, we can begin to make new choices. The Gottmans suggest various antidotes for each Horseman. For instance, with criticism, they suggest making a complaint rather than a comment on the partner's character (I feel frustrated when the garbage piles up,” as opposed to “You are so selfish, you never help out around the house.”) With contempt, they suggest regular expressions of appreciation and respect, both big and small. Creating an atmosphere of kindness, appreciation, and esteem goes a long way towards developing kinder interactions, the opposite of contempt.

            For more information about softened startup or the four horsemen, check out In our next installment we will examine the role of accepting our partner's influence and the ways we might get in our own way.