By Dr. Amie Gordon
One unfortunate side effect of navigating life with another person is conflict. Whether it’s a silly fight over a pillowcase that leaves you and your partner giving each other the silent treatment for a day (true story) or a more serious disagreement over sex or money, you and your partner are two separate people who will not always see eye to eye. If you are one of the many people who thinks conflict is the sign of a bad relationship or who tries to avoid conflict at all costs, I’m here to tell you that conflict, when done right, is actually good for your relationship.
It’s not whether you fight, but how you fight that matters. It takes two people to start a fight, but only one to end it.
In some really cool research, Dr. John Gottman brought hundreds of married couples into the lab and watched them fight. He then kept in contact with the couples and every few years checked in to see if they were still married and if so, how they felt about their relationship. Then Dr. Gottman did his really cool thing — he figured out what the couples who stayed happy in their marriages did during their fights that was different from the couples who divorced or stayed in unhappy marriages.
And what did he figure out? That there were four behaviors that often spell disaster when they show up in the middle of your fights.
The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse
Criticism is the first of the four “horsemen of the apocalypse” as Dr. Gottman calls them. It’s okay (and can be healthy) to complain about what’s wrong in your relationship. The problem arises when complaining turns into criticizing. A complaint focuses on the event or behavior you want to change, while criticism attacks your partner’s personality. When you find yourself generalizing that your partner “always” or “never” does something, you are falling prey to criticism.
So what do you do? Your frustrations are real, but complaining is not going to help you solve your problem. Instead, you need to state your complaint without blame. Let your partner know that you are unhappy about something, but don’t make it their fault, and avoid the terms “always” and “never.” If you can, express your need in a positive way.
The second horseman is defensiveness. Raise your hand if, like me, you find this one particularly difficult. When someone suggests you’ve done something wrong, is your instinct to react quickly with, “It’s not my fault,” followed by some excuse? Do you sometimes find yourself doing this preventatively — defending yourself with righteous indignation before you’ve even been accused? Another way that defensiveness crops up is responding to a partner’s complaints with complaints of your own. It’s so easy to respond to your partner’s complaint that you didn’t take the trash with a quick “well you didn’t do the dishes” that you might not even realize you’ve done it.
You might well deserve to be defended, especially if your partner is criticizing you. But defensiveness never helps solve the problem, it just makes your partner feel like they aren’t being heard. Instead of being defensive, take responsibility. Because somewhere in there you are responsible, at least a little bit. So when your partner lets you know that something you do bothers them, consider if they might be right and look for your part in the problem.
The third horseman is contempt. Everyone has angry moments, but when you begin to feel contempt for your partner, that’s a clear sign that something needs to change. Dr. Gottman found in his research that contempt is actually the best predictor of divorce. So what exactly is contempt and how do you avoid it? It’s the feeling that you are better than your partner, and it comes out when you make derisive comments with the intention of being insulting and hurting your partner. If you are calling your partner names, mocking your partner, and being sarcastic or rolling your eyes, you are likely feeling contempt. Sometimes you might tease your partner in a spirit of playfulness, which is beneficial. But if you find yourself teasing in a mean-spirited way, such as making fun of something you know they are sensitive about, that is a sign of contempt. Calling your partner an idiot, and meaning it, is a surefire sign your relationship is in the dumps.
The fourth horseman is stonewalling. Stonewalling is not so much about what you do, but what you don’t do. Imagine how a stone wall would react as you told it how you were feeling. When you sit in stony silence or utter single-word answers, you are disengaging from an interaction. This happens in response to feeling overwhelmed by your partner’s strong negativity. If you get overwhelmed it is important to take a moment to calm down, but becoming completely disengaged is bad because it means you can’t work through the issue and instead your problems keep building up and up and up. When you feel overwhelmed, it’s okay to step away rather than keep fighting it out. You need to let yourself calm down. But instead of just shutting down and disengaging, talk to your partner. Let your partner know that you need to take some time to calm down and you’ll return to the conversation when you feel more relaxed.
So those are the four horsemen, the four behaviors that make conflicts go sour. And these four behaviors feed on each other — criticism from one partner often leads to the other partner’s defensiveness, which may promote feelings of contempt, and, eventually, stonewalling. If you can learn to reign these behaviors in both by avoiding engaging in them yourself and by not taking the bait when your partner falls prey to them, you will be one BIG step closer to turning your conflicts into productive conversations.