A relationship is bound to have conflicts, and conflict can be a normal and healthy part of a relationship if handled properly. The problem arises when we mishandle conflict which can lead to communication issues. John Gottman, an internationally recognized relationship expert and best-selling author, advice to identify The Four Horsemen (communication styles in relationships that according to his research can forecast the end of a relationship). The goal is to replace these negative communication styles with healthy, productive communication patterns.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these and how you can combat them.
Criticism refers to verbally attacking your partner’s personality or characters. In doing so, you are suggesting to your partner that there is something wrong with them. When criticizing, you may often use the phrase “You always” or “You never”. For example, “You’re so lazy, you never put your shoes away” or “You always leave the dishes in the sink”. As a result, your partner may feel under attack and respond defensively. It’s perfectly okay to express your feelings to your partner, it is a necessary part of a healthy relationship. What matters is how you do it.
The next time you are frustrated and need to express your feelings to your partner, try making a direct complaint that is not an all-encompassing attack on your partner’s character. For example, instead of saying “Your socks are always on the floor, you never pick them up” you can try “Your socks are on the floor. Please try to put them in the laundry basket.” This addresses the specific behaviour rather than criticizing the person. Another antidote recommended is using “I” statements. This focuses the conversation on your feelings rather than attacking your partner’s character. For example, If you want more help around the house, you can try telling your partner “I feel unappreciated when you don’t help out with the housework” instead of “You never help, you just expect me to clean up after you.” We recommend softening your approach and beginning tactfully. Make sure you are clear and avoid passing judgement while communicating your feelings and concerns.
The act of contempt implies putting yourself on a higher level than your partner in an effort to disrespect or psychologically abuse them by attacking their sense of self. This can be achieved by mocking your partner, calling them names, rolling your eyes, and using hostile humour and sarcasm. You may implement contempt by saying “You’re so annoying, are you going to cry now?”. Contempt is the most serious of all the horsemen. The negative method of communication can destroy the affection and admiration between partners.
Couples must work hard to establish a culture of appreciation in their relationship to fight contempt. This can be achieved by highlighting all of the qualities that you love and admire most about your partner. Make a list of these qualities in your phone, journal, or any place you can refer to when you need a reminder.
When you use a counter complaint to defend yourself from an apparent attack, you are being defensive. It is an attempt to protect yourself, to defend your innocence or victimize yourself to avoid blame. In this situation, you might make excuses, complain, and use “yes’butting”. Defensiveness prevents partners from taking responsibility for their actions and escalates negative communication. If your partner is criticizing you, it is still not a good idea to be defensive because it will only exacerbate the situation.
Instead of reacting in a defensive manner, we recommend couples take the time to hear each other out and take responsibility for their negative behaviour. Also, a sincere apology is never a bad idea.
Stonewalling takes place when you choose to tune out or withdraw from your partner rather than confront the issues. By remaining silent, giving monosyllabic answers or changing the subject, you can achieve this. A partner who stonewalls may physically walk away from the conversation or stop tracing it, appearing to stop caring and shutting down.
However, this is usually not the case. Usually, the individual is overwhelmed and attempting to calm themselves or the situation. However, your partner is very likely to assume that you don’t care enough about the problem to speak about it, and will find it very upsetting to be ignored. When you feel emotionally overwhelmed and need a break from the conflict discussion, let your partner know you need time to collect your thoughts and calm down so you can return to the discussion when you are both ready. This way, they will know you are not ignoring or rejecting them, but taking care of yourself.
With hard work, comes change!
Do not feel guilty or ashamed if, while reading this, you realize that you have taken part in these negative communication styles. We have all been there before; you are not alone. The key is to learn from our mistakes and improve as we move forward. With this knowledge of the Four Horsemen and their antidotes, you now have the essential tools to manage conflict in a healthy manner. While it is not easy to break these patterns overnight, it is possible when both partners are motivated and committed to change. When couples put in the work, they get the results!
We encourage you to consider couples therapy if you experience difficulty making these changes in your relationship. A therapist specializing in relationship conflicts may help with self-awareness and better communication.
Your relationship is more likely to be stable and happy if you are able to keep the Four Horsemen at bay.