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Couples that are able to understand and manage their emotions and behaviors, as well as understand how their partners respond to conflict, are significantly better equipped to have functional relationships. This behavioral equipment is related to what is known as Emotional Intelligence. The Gottman’s have found that couples who are able to effectively manage conflict find success in their relationship, whereas those that don’t manage conflict, often end in divorce. The Gottman’s uncovered four behaviors that are exhibited during conflict which either sustain conflict or lead to even greater conflict. I will discuss each of these behaviors, labeled the Four Horsemen, and also provide antidotes for each, below.
CRITICISM – The first of the four horseman. According to John Gottman, though most relationships have an element of “criticism”, it is imperative that couples work on reducing the level of criticism that they give to their partner. Further, when a relationship becomes negative or highly conflicted, most feedback is perceived as negative. In fact, constructive criticism is considered negative too. Research shows that for every one criticism given, five positive statements are needed to counteract the negative effect of this one statement. This makes finding a balance difficult when a relationship is already negative, as it becomes extremely difficult to have positive interactions. The overall goal is not to be critical, which will help prevent a downward spiral.
DEFENSIVENESS – The second of the four horsemen and a major offender in relationships. “Defensiveness” is one of the most frequent behaviors I observe in couples therapy when there is conflict. A defensive response is often a reflex action to criticism or to perceived criticism. Sometimes there is no criticism; only feedback stated. However, the individual on the receiving end responds by blaming the other for doing the same thing, denies their responsibility in the matter or whines, and makes an excuse for their behavior. When the original speaker experiences the defensiveness of the receiver, they often feel invalidated and alone which leads the couple becomes more distant.
Antidotes to “defensiveness” are the following: reminding yourself that a relationship is about being part of a team (not two individuals working against each other). Rather than seeing your partner’s words as an attack, see them as strong expressions of feelings about the topic being discussed. Acknowledging that you are not perfect. Reminding yourself of the positive qualities of your partner. Most importantly, taking some responsibility for the feedback your partner is expressing. Do not feel obligated to apologize for something you have not done. Accepting even 10 percent of responsibility, if it is due, will de-escalate tension, improve communication, and build trust.
STONEWALLING – The third of the four horsemen. “Stonewalling” is exactly as it sounds: the avoidance or refusal to address or communicate about an issue or conflict. To the other partner, stonewalling often feels as though they are “talking to a brick wall”. In his research, Dr. Gottman found that 85 percent of men use stonewalling as a way of dealing with conflict; yet, the men did not realize that this was a very destructive strategy. Men often use a distancing technique to cope with high levels of emotion. Remember that withdrawing from an argument does not solve it and “parallel living” has been found to be a consequence of this behavior over the longer term. Parallel living results to pulling away from a relationship, leaving it vulnerable to outside forces. Also, “stonewalling” leads to increased conflict and major melt downs when the non-stonewaller begins to chase the stonewaller about an issue. At some point, the stonewaller reacts with rage, often leading the couple to a regrettable incident.
Antidotes to “stonewalling” are as follows: resisting the temptation to withdraw –stay with your partner emotionally. Looking for the good in each other. Making time for positive experiences. Not ignoring your partner and giving some sort of response; even if it is just a nod or a brief reply. Further, it is important to practice good self care to avoid “stonewalling”. We often stonewall because we are anxious about conflict. Conflict causes anxiety in most of us. Again, in order to better manage the anxiety of dealing with difficult issues, it is crucial to practice good self care. This could be through getting a good night sleep, exercising frequently, and maintaining a healthy diet. Avoidance is okay in a relationship as long as you are avoiding “stonewalling”.
CONTEMPT – The fourth and final of the four horsemen (belligerence is a term used by Gottman to describe a stronger form of contempt. Belligerence is also known as the cousin of the four horsemen). Gottman believed that “contempt” was the most dangerous of the horsemen. He found that “contempt in a relationship” was predictive of divorce in 86 percent of cases. “Contempt” can be described as any behavior which causes your partner to feel “put down”. Examples include: belittling your partner, treating them with disdain, eye rolling, sneering, insults, name calling, mocking, and cynicism. “Contempt” can be as simple as having disdain or disgust with your partner in how they chew gum, eat, drive, or snore at night.
Warning signs of “contempt” include: no longer feeling admiration for your partner or feeling that your partner has severe personality deficiencies. It is difficult to remember your partner’s positive aspects.
Antidotes for “contempt” include: focusing on your partner’s positive qualities. Using a “time-out” when you recognize that the situation is becoming heated. Watching your tone and facial expressions. Focusing on the behavior and not the person. Most importantly, gaining an appreciation of where your partner is coming from. Often when we are able to put our partner’s behavior in context, we have a greater appreciation of the cause or causes behind their behavior. As a result, a better view of their behavior leads to the realization that it is about them rather than about us.
Additional Tools to Resolve Conflict
It is imperative that both partners accept the “influence” of one another. Typically in relationships there is a top and a bottom where the top has ultimate veto power. Relationships are most effective when each party has equal veto power with majority of issues. Additionally, Dr. Gottman found that in the happiest of marriages, men are who accepted the “influence” of their partners. Examples of “influence” include: a belief that you can learn from your partner, not rejecting their opinions, and believing that they can also come up with good solutions.
Partners that make effective repairs have functional and successful relationships. This means that functional parties resolve problems or arguments during the argument. When couples resolve each argument, problems are resolved at that time and do not become additive or resurface during a future argument. Further, having a partner who has the ability to say they are sorry is crucial. Being able to say you are wrong takes courage, trust, and assists in reducing conflict and having a loving relationship.
Creating an atmosphere where one can break the negativity is helpful. One can use humor, offer their partner a cup of coffee or tea after the argument, ask their partner for a hug, or make light of the argument without invalidating the other. Make-up intimacy also helps make peace and reconnects the partners. Moreover, having a sense that your partner will accept your efforts to improve the situation and vice versa is paramount.
Making compromises is key in building trust, proving commitment, and ensuring safety. Having a sense that your partner will give way on things during disagreement ensures safety. “Black and white thinking” – such as “I’m right so you must be wrong” – is dangerous. Couples must be able to give and take in an argument while sharing power.
Notably, couples need to fight with the end in mind. So what should the end solution consist of? The end in mind should focus on resolving the issue while simultaneously ensuring your partner feels good during and after the conflict. Both partners must control their stubbornness. Couples should practice calming techniques, such as paying attention to their heart rates. When we have a heart rate above 90 to 95 beats per minute, we are emotionally flooded and have difficulty being rational in arguments. Our body enters in a state of fight, flight, or freeze. When we are flooded, we should pause or take a time-out for 20 to 30 minutes from an argument and then resume discussion in order to resolve the conflict.
Just as we should not spank our children when we are angry or emotional, we should not argue or discuss important matters with our partner when we are angry. Inevitably, something may be said or done that we regret. Most importantly, if you need a break from an argument, take a break, but resolve the issue immediately following your break.
Signs of flooding include: feeling overwhelmed, not being able to stay calm during arguments, wanting distance, and small issues becoming big ones. If you are flooded, take a break.
Finally, I have illustrated Safe Talking Techniques that have been adapted from Markman and Stanley in “Fighting for your Marriage.” These techniques enable each partner to speak without interruption.
1. Use of a jointly valued item such as a talking tool (for example, a wedding ring, a photo of the family, or the couple).
2. Each person takes turns to hold the item and the person who holds it also holds the floor.
3. The person listening then repeats back what they have heard and checks that it is correct.
4. The other person then takes hold of the talking item and speaks while their partner summaries.
Dr. Gottman has developed a five step tool to discuss an issue or major problem that needs to be resolved. Remember the end goal is to gain a greater understanding of where your partner is coming from rather than to win the argument. When I work with couples, I want them both to feel like they have been heard, understood, and are accepted for their position. Often achieving the techniques above deescalates the situation and the couple finds resolution. Couples that get along and don’t have conflict easily agree to disagree. Couples who have high conflict are threatened by disagreement.
In using the five steps below, couples should work through each step together.
Feelings: Share how you felt about the situation. Do not say why you felt that way. Avoid commenting on your partner’s feelings. Stay in your lane.
Realities: Describe your “reality.” Take turns. Summarize and validate at least one part of your partner’s reality. Remember, their reality should not be a threat to you. During conflict we have selective attention and therefore partners remember the same situation differently.
Triggers: Share what experiences or memories you have had that might have escalated the interaction. Explain the stories of why these are triggers for each of you. Own your own trigger. Don’t blame, criticize, or minimize your partner’s triggers.
Responsibility: Acknowledge your own role in contributing to the fight or incident. This is the opposite of defensiveness. When we take a little responsibility, deescalating begins for our partner.
Constructive Plans: Plan together one way that each of you can make it better next time. Now that you both have a better appreciation of where your partner is coming from, have been heard, and each have taken some of the responsibility for the regrettable incident, you are better equipped to find a resolution with your partner.