November 27, 2013
Depression & Physical Activity
February 28, 2014

Couples and Conflict

Counseling for anxiety, depression and ADHD

Around the holidays, decisions have to be made. Couples make decisions about where to spend the holidays, what traditions or religious ceremonies to observe, and how much money to spend on gifts. With all these decisions to make, there are more opportunities for conflict in a relationship. How couples approach conflict is one of the most important aspects of a relationship and can be an indicator of the health of the relationship.

Dr. John Gottman, who has studied couples relationships for four decades, uses the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to describe poor communication during conflict. The Four Horsemen are:

  1. Criticism
  2. Defensiveness
  3. Contempt
  4. Stonewalling

Many times, conflict will begin with some criticism. “You’re always making us late.” The person giving criticism does not include themselves in the negative behavior, and the partner can feel like they have a defect. An alternative is to address an issue without criticism and have a gentle start up to the conversation. Such as “sometimes we leave later than I would like, can we work together to figure out how to leave earlier?”

If a partner feels criticized, they might turn to defensiveness to stop what feels like a personal attack. They might deflect it back to their partner. Such as “well, you were late last week and you forgot to pick up the mail.” Or they might take a victim stance: “I try to be ready on time but I never live up to your standards, do I?” An alternative response is to not become defensive and instead take responsibility. Such as “that’s a good point. Let’s talk about it when we’re on the road to our destination.”

If the criticism escalates, it can move to contempt. Contempt occurs when a partner makes a statement coming from a place of superiority. This includes name-calling, like “idiot” or “that’s stupid.” People who practice communication skills almost never resort to contempt and repair the situation instead.

Finally, there’s stonewalling which is emotionally withdrawing from the interaction. The person will stop listening, cross their arms, or give their partner a shaming glance. The stonewaller is trying to soothe themselves by stepping back but it instead escalates their emotions (and almost always their partner’s too). They are not being heard. They think if they interrupt or interact it will only make things worse.

How couples approach conflict can predict what the relationship will look like in the future. Another indicator is the amount of positivity in the relationship as opposed to negativity. Negativity, the above communication patterns, has enormous power to hurt a relationship.  Positivity, including humor and understanding, has the power to heal. Keep in mind, negativity can hurt a relationship more than positivity is able to heal it. So choose your words wisely. Having a relationship is a privilege and not an entitlement.