More often than not when couples first enter my office it is because they are in an intense state of
conflict. They will often report that their reason for seeking out services is because they are fighting and arguing all of the time and they are just not sure the relationship will work out at this point. Almost always in these cases a major contributing factor to their conflict and arguments are unhealthy and unproductive communication patterns. I often tell my clients that it is usually not what we are trying to say to our partner but how we are saying it that is resulting in conflict. In order to help, we need to identify those unhealthy patterns and learn some new healthy ones.
Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Julie Gottman have studied couples and their communication patterns for decades. Through their decades of research, they were able to find some common factors that differentiated couples who divorced and couples that stayed together. In the couples that divorced they found a higher occurrence of four unhealthy communication patterns, whereas couples that stayed together did not use these communication patterns as much (Gottman & Silver, 2015). They started calling these communication patterns The Four Horseman as a metaphor for predicting disaster in a relationship.
The Four Horseman
Criticism: Criticism is different from voicing a complaint or offering a critique to your partner. Criticism occurs when you begin attacking your partner’s core being. Often these come in the form of “You never”, or “You always” type statements.
Contempt: Simply put contempt is when we are being mean and disrespectful to our partner. This is often when sarcasm, ridicule, name calling, mimicking, and non-verbal communication such as eye-rolling come into play. “While criticism attacks your partner’s character, contempt assumes a position of moral superiority over them” (Lisitsa, 2013). It leaves our partner feeling worthless or despised. For this reason, Dr. Gottman and Dr. Gottman have stated that contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce.
Defensiveness: Defensiveness is often a response to criticism. When we are criticized we often feel attacked and then feel inclined to defend ourselves. When we are feeling defensive we often make excuses or give justifications for our actions. We may even try to place blame on our partner or bring up one of their flaws as a way to even the score.
Stonewalling: Stonewalling is often a response to contempt. This is when we become overwhelmed and begin to shut down. This may take the form of tuning our partner out, walking away, giving our partner the silent treatment, or acting busy with another activity. This breed distance and disconnect in the relationship and can leave partners feeling alone and abandoned.
The use of these types of communication patterns can leave us feeling angry, hurt, disappointed, worthless, abandoned, and unloved to name just a few. It makes sense why these patterns would continue to escalate conflict and possibly even result in the end of a relationship. If you find that you or your partner use any of these communication patterns the good news is that there are solutions! Working on improving communication can help couples heal wounds, repair trust, and reignite connection in their relationship. Here are some of my most comment tips I give clients to help them work on having better communication with each other:
Be nice to each other. Essentially this is just following the golden rule: treat others the way you want to be treated. This one may seem a bit obvious, but you would be surprised how effective this simple tip can be in helping couples get back on track. I urge clients to speak kindly and gently to each other. This does not mean we have to avoid discussing difficult topics, it just means we are going to be kind and respectful with how we are saying things to our partner. I often urge clients to use “I feel” statements to help express their feelings in a more respectful and receptive way.
Remember you are on the same team. Often, we let conflict divide us and it makes our partner feel like the enemy. Remember that you are both on the same team and you both want the same thing: a happy, healthy, and fulfilling relationship. When we can remember that and work together it can make tackling conflict much easier.
Do something nice or helpful for your partner. This one in and of itself won’t do much to end conflict. It also should not just be used to just try to smooth things over with our partner. But when used in combination with the other tips, doing something nice for our partner can help remind them that we care and that we are trying to do our share to improve the relationship. It will help restore connection within the relationship.
Give your partner some grace. We are all human which means we all make mistakes and are not always the best versions of ourselves. Remember that your partner is not perfect (and neither are you) and sometimes we have to give each other some grace and forgiveness so we can move forward. It is important that we are not just sweeping issues under the rug or letting big things go as these types of things do need to be addressed. However, too often we hold on to our partner’s mistakes, so we can use it later as ammo against them. Remember that defensiveness, criticism, and contempt thing mentioned earlier? Neither of you can win in the relationship if you continue to try to hurt the other with past mistakes.
Work on your own self-soothing. This is probably the most important tip of them all. I tell clients this repeatedly: you cannot change or control others, you can only change and control yourself. If you can focus on your own emotional regulation and self-soothing, then you will be more able to use the other tips listed. This one is also important because if we just sit around waiting for our partner to make changes then most likely you both will continue to be disappointed and upset because you are both just waiting for the other person to make changes. However, if you focus on your emotional regulation and actions and your partner focuses on theirs then you will both win in the relationship. You have to be the change you wish to see in your relationship.
If you or someone you know are struggling with conflict within relationships I hope you can find these tips helpful. Most of these were written with romantic relationships in mind but they can easily be translated and adapted for other types of relationships as well, such as between parents and children, friends, or co-workers. Conflict in relationships can often be the result of some bigger underlying issues. It often beneficial to seek professional help to assist with navigating and resolving bigger issues.
Gottman, J.M., & Silver, N. (2015). The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
Lisitsa, E. (2013, April 23). The Four Horseman: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/
About the Writer: Amy Reihman