Many couples often believe that successful relationships don’t involve any conflict. That is a fairly unrealistic assumption since arguments, disagreements and conflict are inevitable in any relationship, including romantic ones. What determines the success of a relationship is how partners deal with that conflict and communicate with each other during stressful and challenging times. The famed psychologist John Gottman popularized the metaphor of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, which reflect four common, yet destructive patterns of communication that typically arise during conflict in relationships. When left unchecked, the four horsemen can create negativity and toxicity in the relationship that may ultimately lead to its demise.
Whether these are subconscious behaviours or active choices, recognizing these harmful communication styles are the very first step towards mitigating the fallout from them and actively working towards replacing them with healthy habits that will strengthen your relationship. Below are the four horsemen that arise in conflict, and some ideas on what can be done differently in those moments.
- Criticism – This is fundamentally different from just expressing your complaint to your partner. Criticism goes beyond addressing a specific problematic behavior or action and instead channels your anger into verbal attacks on a person’s core character. Criticism inherently implies that something is wrong with your partner, and it can invariably cause hurt, anger and rejection, escalate the argument, and distract from addressing the actual issue at hand in a productive way. Even worse, repeated patterns of criticism can pave the way for contempt to develop, which could potentially be more toxic to the relationship.
Instead of using a complaint as a means to attack a person’s character or personality, express your feelings and explain how your needs were violated to begin with. Converting “you” statements to “I” statements can make it feel less like an attack on character or laying blame. This would help your partner understand your perspective in the situation and intent of the message won’t get lost in translation in the heat of the moment.
- Contempt – This reflects a sense of superiority over your partner and can be demonstrated through sarcastic comments, name-calling, cynicism, scoffing, mocking and so on. While this may be fueled by longstanding negativity and unresolved issues, it can be downright insulting and disrespectful towards your partner. Breakdown in the relationship is inevitable if there is a lack of mutual respect and understanding, with one partner assuming a position of moral superiority.
Treating your partner with respect and understanding, regardless of difference in opinion or preference is the key towards mitigating the destructive force of contempt. Take a moment to appreciate all the ways your partner enriches your life and express that appreciation and gratitude to them. Creating an environment of acceptance and appreciation within the relationship can make both partners feel loved and valued for who they are, flaws and all. The positivity that comes from practicing gratitude can go a long way towards alleviating pent-up stress within the relationship and can help couples communicate and navigate challenges in a healthier way.
- Defensiveness – Being defensive is often an instinctive reaction to criticism. We feel the need to protect ourselves and justify our actions and behaviours especially when we feel unfairly accused. However, defensiveness can often become a crutch and a means to deflect blame or make excuses for our own shortcomings. This can indicate to the partner a lack of interest in taking responsibility for one’s missteps or trivializing their concerns – this can ultimately lead to escalation of the conflict without any tangible resolution to the original problem.
Set aside the righteous indignation and sincerely accept responsibility for your own actions and behaviours that contributed to the issue at hand. Defensiveness gets in the way of couples working as a team – therefore, acknowledging and correcting any missteps on your part can allow couples to reach compromises that work for both. Practice active listening in your conversations with your partner, try to understand their perspectives and concerns and learn to tease out the difference between an attack on you versus them expressing a valid unmet need.
- Stonewalling – Being mentally checked out during a conversation instead of actively communicating with your partner, ignoring the situation at hand, exiting an argument angrily or giving your partner the silent treatment are all examples of stonewalling. This often occurs after the negativity from the first three horsemen builds up to an overwhelming level – while the need to want an out from that can become understandable, it becomes problematic if it becomes your go-to habit. Withdrawing from a disagreement doesn’t ever solve anything – instead it can build up resentment, disappointment and hurt and perpetuate the cycle of toxic communication.
Learn to regulate your emotions in those heated moments – take deep, calming breaths to slow your heart rate, step away to calm down and gather your thoughts, or engage in an activity that soothes you. This can put things into perspective and allow you to respond constructively instead of reacting emotionally in the heat of the moment. Once you feel less overwhelmed, revisit the conversation with your partner and work together respectfully and productively to tackle the situation.
Recognizing and unlearning these patterns of behaviour can be hard work and require motivation, effort, persistence, and patience from both parties in the relationship. While true change can take time, even incremental improvements and honest communication can make a dramatic difference in the health of your relationship.