How do we help to grease the wheels of our relationships so that it works better overall? A good place to start is with a thorough understanding of the importance of communication. Keep reading to learn more about the top four DON’Ts in any relationship!
Written By: Taylor Kracht, LCMHCA
When in a verbal conflict, a person may resort to unhealthy methods of arguing. This either leads to further conflict or the issue never gets resolved, straining the relationship. The goal is being able to handle conflict when it arises, in a healthy way, one which benefits the relationship rather than hurting it. The Gottman Institute defined “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” as the top four “don’ts” in relationship conflict. The four horsemen are Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling. These behaviors escalate conflict and can damage a relationship. Over time, these patterns may become a normal part of communication between partners, which is toxic to the relationship. Below is a summary of each horseman and its antidote.
Criticism. Criticism is handling conflict with harsh tones or words, playing the blame game, being hurtful towards your partner, expressing judgement or disapproval, and focusing on perceived personal flaws of your partner rather than changeable behaviors. This action is often met with defensiveness from the other partner.
Example: “This bedroom is a mess, you’re a slob!”
Here you can see the person is being attacked by a personality trait, “slob”, rather than a changeable behavior.
Antidote: Use a gentle start up. Deal with the issues in a calm and gentle way. The focus is on the problem, not the person. It should be “the couple vs. the problem”, not “partner vs partner”. You can do this by choosing when to bring up the discussion at a more appropriate time, using warm and welcoming body language and tone of voice, and using “I” statements.
Example: “I feel annoyed when the bedroom has clothes on the floor. Could you please pick up the laundry and put it in the basket?”
This is an “I” statement. This technique looks like, “I feel (feeling word) when (changeable behavior).” This technique is useful to get your feelings across but also point out a changeable behavior rather than attacking your partner personally.
Defensiveness. Defensiveness is deflecting responsibility for your own mistakes or behaviors in the issue, or refusing to accept feedback from your partner. This can look like making excuses or justifying why you behaved a certain way or said something hurtful. When someone tries to shift the blame to their partner instead of owning up to their part in it.
Example: “It’s not my fault I yelled. You were the one who made us late, not me.”
Instead of taking responsibility for the behavior of yelling, the blame is on the time management of the other.
Antidote: Take responsibility. Own up to the behavior without blaming others or justifying it. It is also helpful here to avoid taking feedback personally, feedback is meant to help strengthen a relationship- use it as an opportunity to improve. Show remorse and apologize for the mistakes.
Example: “I shouldn’t have yelled, that is my fault, I am sorry for that.”
The follow up here can be working together to solve time management and to create better patterns of expressing emotions (not yelling). Therefore, both partners can improve what they need to on their own parts.
Contempt. Contempt is showing anger, hostility, and disgust towards your partner. This can look like using putdowns, insults, acting superior to your partner, and using a mocking or sarcastic tone when having discussions or conflict.
Example: “You never do anything right, you’re worthless.”
Overall, contempt is being mean to your partner and putting them down when you should be raising them up.
Antidote: Share fondness and admiration to your partner every chance you get. You can foster a healthy relationship by pointing out your partners strengths, showing regular respect and appreciation for one another, giving compliments, and showing affection.
Example: “You are really good at cooking. I love the meals you make us; they are delicious.”
By continuous positive care towards one another, you can create a strong relationship that is able to solve conflict better together because you feel appreciated by one another.
Stonewalling. This is a reaction to conflict that is unhealthy. Stonewalling is when you shut down during an argument, emotionally withdraw, or go silent during important discussions. This often leaves the issue unresolved for days, weeks, or months. This can happen when someone is feeling overwhelmed or tries to avoid difficult discussions or problems in general.
Example: “I am done talking.” *walks into room, shuts door, discussion avoided and not resolved*
Avoiding conflict does not make it go away, it just prolongs it. It is okay to need space sometimes, but what you do during the break and how long it lasts is important. Below is the correct way of getting some space when needed.
Antidote: Use self-soothing techniques. During a discussion, use relaxation techniques to calm down and stay present with your partner as much as you can. As stated above, it is okay to need a break form a conversation if you are feeling overwhelmed. The key is what you do with that time and how long that break lasts. First, ask your partner for a momentary pause in the discussion. Then during your break use deep breathing, mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), or guided imagery to calm down. This should take no more than 20 minutes. Then, once you are calmer, return to the discussion and find a way to solve the issue together. Do not leave the discussion unresolved for days, weeks, months, or years.