Even the most successful relationships have conflict. Our research has shown that it’s not the appearance of conflict, but rather how it’s managed that predicts the success or failure of a relationship. We say “manage” conflict rather than “resolve,” because relationship conflict is natural and has functional, positive aspects.
The first step in effectively managing conflict is to identify and fight The Four Horsemen when they arrive in your conflict discussions. To do otherwise is to risk serious problems in the future of your relationship. Below, we share antidotes for fighting off The Four Horsemen in your relationship.
Criticism: A complaint focuses on a specific behavior, while a criticism attacks the character of the person. The antidote for criticism is to complain without blame. Talk about your feelings using I statements and then express a positive need. What do you feel? What do you need?
- Criticism: “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish.”
- Antidote: “I’m feeling left out by our talk tonight. Can we please talk about my day?”
Defensiveness: Defensiveness is defined as self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in attempt to ward off a perceived attack. Many people become defensive when they are being criticized, but the problem is that being defensive never helps to solve the problem at hand. Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, the problem isn’t me, it’s you. As a result, the problem is not resolved and the conflict escalates further. The antidote is to accept responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict.
- Defensiveness: “It’s not my fault that we’re always late, it’s your fault.”
- Antidote: “Well, part of this is my problem, I need to think more about time.”
Contempt: Statements that come from a relative position of superiority. Some examples of displays of contempt include when a person uses sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. Contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce and must be eliminated. The antidote is building a culture of appreciation and respect.
- Contempt: “You’re an idiot.”
- Antidote: “I’m proud of the way you handled that teacher conference.”
Stonewalling: Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction. The antidote is to practice physiological self-soothing. The first step of physiological self-soothing is to stop the conflict discussion. If you keep going, you’ll find yourself exploding at your partner or imploding (stonewalling), neither of which will get you anywhere. The only reasonable strategy, therefore, is to let your partner know that you’re feeling flooded and need to take a break. That break should last at least twenty minutes, since it will be that long before your body physiologically calms down. It’s crucial that during this time you avoid thoughts of righteous indignation (“I don’t have to take this anymore”) and innocent victimhood (“Why is he always picking on me?”). Spend your time doing something soothing and distracting, like listening to music or exercising.
In one of our longitudinal research studies, we interrupted couples after fifteen minutes and told them we needed to adjust the equipment. We asked them not to talk about their issue, but just to read magazines for half an hour. When they started talking about their issue again, their heart rates were significantly lower and their interaction more positive and productive.
Over the course of the next three weeks, we will not only teach you how to conquer each of The Four Horsemen in the moment, but we will also share tools that will help you begin to build barricades to prevent them from barging into your relationship in the future. Remember, we are only able to provide a glimpse into the many tools and skills Dr. Gottman has designed for couples on our blog. To see more than just the tip of the iceberg, check out the vast compendium of knowledge he shares in his many books and be sure to join our community on Facebook.
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