If you have ever become increasingly frustrated with communication patterns in conflict with your romantic partner, you are not alone. We often hear the term “communication is key” in making a romantic relationship last, but what happens when you find it increasingly difficult to communicate about differences in opinion with your partner?
Communicating through conflict is inherently difficult, especially when we are not feeling heard or understood by our partner. However, conflict will inevitably arise in any partnership, so knowing how to navigate these conversations successfully is helpful and imperative in making a romantic relationship last.
According to The Gottman Method, a research-based approach to couple’s therapy, four barriers commonly stand in the way of successfully communicating through conflict: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. The Gottman Method refers to these unhealthy communication patterns as “The Four Horsemen,” identifying and labeling each one in the moment of conflict is the first step in having more productive, healthy conversations through conflict with your romantic partner.
Criticism is not offering a complaint, so it is important to understand the difference. Criticism insults your partner at their core, criticizing their being and personality. A complaint, on the other hand, is voicing discontent with a specific issue. Can you see the difference in the examples below?
Criticism: “You said you would call me when you got home, and you didn’t. You’re so unthoughtful; you can never remember to do anything that is important to me.”
Complaint: “I felt really worried when you didn’t call me when you got home. I thought we had agreed to both let each other know when we got home safely.”
Notice how criticism takes this issue as a moment to attack the partner’s core being, whereas the complaint focuses on the specific issue that arose and how it made the other person feel.
It is considered the most damaging of The Four Horsemen; we assume a position of superiority over our partner when speaking with contempt. It is not only mean but disrespectful and may be portrayed through sarcasm, mocking, mimicking, eye-rolling, scoffing, name-calling, etc. Contempt makes the person spoken to feel belittled, inferior, or despised.
For instance, contempt may sound like: “You need support? Please, all you’re responsible for is going to work and picking up after yourself—it isn’t that difficult, and it isn’t my problem that it feels like a lot to manage for you—it’s yours. You’re so incompetent, you need to grow up and start acting like a real adult. I don’t need to be taking care of another child.”
Contempt is the outcome of negative thoughts about one’s partner that has been festering for a while, and it is the single most significant predictor of divorce, according to Dr. John Gottman’s research.
I am willing to go out on a limb and assume that we have all been defensive at one point or another. While it is a common reaction, defensiveness is neither helpful nor neutral—it is actively harmful to a romantic relationship and any conversation. Defensiveness assumes the position of a completely innocent party, finds excuses to explain away behavior we feel is being unjustifiably targeted, and often seeks to shift blame onto the other person.
Question: “Are you ready to leave soon? We need to leave in 5 minutes if we want to be on time.”
Defensive answer: “No, it takes me way longer to get ready—you know that. Plus, I had to clean up the apartment before getting ready, which you didn’t help with. You should’ve told me to start getting ready early than you did if wanted to be on time, or you could’ve cleaned up the apartment for me. Either way, us being late is not my fault—it’s yours.”
Defensiveness fails to take responsibility for our mistakes or acknowledge our partner’s concerns. While understandable that to want to defend ourselves when we feel unfairly attacked, becoming defensive will ultimately escalate a conflict and is unlikely to ever lead to a desirable outcome.
The final horseman is stonewalling: when one partner, usually the one in the “listener” role, withdraws from the conversation and stops responding, shutting down the possibility for further communication in the conversation. Rather than engaging with the topic matter, a partner who is stonewalling may stop speaking, turn away, begin to engage in distracting behaviors, or act busy.
Stonewalling results from one partner feeling so overwhelmed by the conversation that they become psychologically flooded (LINK) and unable to engage in the conversation any further. However, if this pattern of behavior persists without acknowledgment and the use of appropriate coping skills to manage this overwhelm, it can seriously get in the way of having a successful conversation about a disagreement between two partners.
Luckily, Drs. Julie and John Gottman—the two psychologists behind The Gottman Method—did not just leave us with research about how to mess up conversations about conflict best; they also speak to their remedies. So, if identifying any of The Four Horsemen at play in a conversation is the first step in having a more productive, healthy discussion with your partner, implementing its antidote is the second. You will find brief explanations of each antidote below.
The antidote to criticism: A gentle start-up
Instead of using criticism, a gentle start-up focuses on expressing one’s emotions and needs without blame. It usually starts with an “I feel…” statement to express your emotions regarding the situation, followed by an “I need…” statement to express your needs from your partner (not what you do not need) to feel better.
The antidote to contempt: Creating a culture of appreciation and respect
As mentioned earlier, contempt often results from built-up negative thoughts and feelings towards one’s partner over time. Reversing contempt, building and fostering feelings of admiration, gratitude, respect, and affection for your partner is essential. Notice the small positive things intentionally, both to yourself and aloud to your partner, and over time a foundation of positive emotions towards your partner will accumulate to help buffer negative emotions so that when they do arise, conversations can be healthy and productive—bringing you and your partner closer rather than pushing you further apart.
The antidote to defensiveness: Taking responsibility
If defensiveness is the avoidance of acknowledging any mistakes we have made and turning around blame onto our partner—saying, “No, this is your fault, not mine.” Its antidote is taking responsibility for our part in whatever is going on.
Acknowledging whatever role you may have had in the conflict shows your partner that you can empathize with their point of view and creates an atmosphere to work together as a team against the issue than against each other.
The antidote to stonewalling: Self-soothing
Knowing how and when to self-soothe is a must if you are the partner who engages in stonewalling when feeling overwhelmed in the face of conflict. Acknowledging that conflict cannot be worked through when feeling psychologically flooded is important. However, that does not mean that shutting down is any more helpful to reaching a compromise or supporting your partner through a difficult conversation.
Self-soothing requires a defined break from the conversation, usually for 20-30 minutes minimum, communicated between partners to avoid any feelings of abandonment. During this time, each partner—especially the individual feeling overwhelmed—engages in an activity separately from one another that has no bearing on the conflict at hand. For example, playing a game, reading a magazine, listening to a podcast, going for a walk & listening to music, etc. During this time, the mind and body have time to calm back down to a state of being able to have a productive conversation with our partner, genuinely hearing what one another has to say, empathizing with their point of view, and coming to a compromise as a team.
Replacing any of The Four Horsemen with their antidote can be way easier said than done. Like anything else in therapy, just because it is a simple concept does not mean it is easy to implement. If you notice patterns of The Four Horseman in conversations with your romantic partner, a trained therapist can help you and your partner spot when they are at play and work with you on replacing them with their antidotes.