Communication is a factor in every relationship. In fact, it’s so important that in a committed relationship you cannot not communicate. Everything you do, or don’t do, communicates.

When you believe this, your goal shifts—you want to handle the messages from others and clearly say what you mean.

Even so, there are some things when it comes to communication that are just killers in marriage … enter the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

When you understand that there are four seasons in every year, that it’s cold in winter and hot in summer, it’s easier to change your clothes than it is to try and change the season. It’s not possible to change the season—and it’s also not possible to change your spouse—or anyone else you know and love.

It’s only possible to change yourself. Is it possible you might need to change the way you communicate in your marriage?

Renowned marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman has identified communication styles that predict the end of a marriage, which he calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

(Actually, Dr. Gottman has observed four destructive styles of communicating and coping that accurately predict the long-term failure of a marriage: harsh startup, flooding, body language, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.)

While harsh startup, flooding, and body language are destructive, the four horsemen provide the deadliest blow to marriage.

These four horsemen are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt—with contempt being the most lethal.

If you want a better marriage in 2012, you’ll need to get rid of these—with contempt to go first.

1. Contempt.

Contempt is intentionally abusing your spouse—verbally, emotionally, and psychologically. Contempt expresses the complete absence of any admiration and is delivered with insults, name-calling, hostile humor, mockery, and body language. Contempt is toxic, and its presence is an indication of a disintegrating marriage.

If criticism and contempt are a regular part of your relationship, think about counseling to help you take a different shape.

2. Criticism.

Understanding the difference between criticizing and complaining is more than semantics, because criticism is the slippery slope that slides into contempt.

Criticisms creep in when complaints are ignored. Criticisms are global attacks on character and on worth, and they target the shortcomings of the other person.

Complaints are objective statements of unmet needs (and a good thing). Use this as a guide—an effective complaint is one that:

Starts softly, with a request for helpI need your help.
Observes an action or behaviorWhen there are stacks of mail on the kitchen table and counters…
States the impact of that action or behaviorI react badly to the clutter.
Defines the desired change in behaviorI’d like to keep the kitchen table and counters clear.
Asks for input as to how to achieve the outcomeWhat are you willing to do to help have a less cluttered kitchen and a calmer me?

Side note: These first two horsemen have often grown up with childhood wounds such as parental criticism, shaming, belittling, or excessive demands.

3. Defensiveness.

This is a natural reaction to being criticized or treated contemptuously; it’s also a way of sidestepping responsibility. If you are ignoring complaints or failing to contribute creative solutions, those complaints are likely to become criticisms… which naturally lead to defense.

Remember this mantra: Don’t attack. Don’t defend. Don’t withdraw. Marriage is supposed to be for better or worse. Stay present, especially when the going gets rough.

4. Stonewalling.

When you stonewall, you avoid the hard work of growing up, either because you’re unaware of your own feelings or because you’re afraid of conflict. Rather than dealing directly with an issue or with your spouse, you check out—you tune out, turn away, and engage in busyness or obsessive behaviors.

Put another way—you simply stop relating to the most important person in your life.

Dr. Gottman’s research clearly demonstrates that conflict is not the cause of unhappy marriages—happy and unhappy couples fight about the same things. How conflict is handled is what makes the difference between a disaster or master marriage.

Most couples wait for six years after they know their relationship is in serious trouble before they seek counseling. Yep, SIX YEARS! Evidence continues to mount that both individual and family therapy save money by cutting health expenditures, reducing employee absenteeism, and boosting productivity.

Start where you are in your relationship. Use the tools you have—blogs, books, therapists, coaches, online classes like Blow Up My Marriage.

Do what you can to take responsibility for your part by becoming the best YOU you can be. Once you’re on the path to being the YOU, you’re well on your way to being in the best marriage.

What helps you keep communication a priority in your relationships?