Relationship Conflict: The Antidotes to the Four Horsemen

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In our previous blog we outlined relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman’s Four Horseman of the Apocalypse – the behavior and communication patterns that have been found to be particularly toxic to relationships. The good news is that there are antidotes to these issues! Dr. Gottman’s methods for eliminating The Four Horsemen will help you to de-escalate arguments as well as label and manage destructive patterns to build a more loving relationship.

Antidote to Criticism: Gentle Start Up

Complaints focus on a specific behavior, whereas criticisms attack the character of your partner. The antidote to criticism is to use a Gentle Start Up. Talk about your feelings using ‘I’ statements and then express a positive need. Let go of grudges and resentments and give your partner the opportunity to try to ‘fix it’ without putting them on the defensive. Move from blame to stating a positive need rather than a negative one.

In summary, the antidote is: “I Feel…. About….I need….”.

For example,

Criticism (ineffective): “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish.”

Antidote: “I’m feeling left out by our talk tonight. It makes me feel that I’m important to you when you ask me about my day, and I’d love it if you did that.”

Antidote to Contempt: Don’t do it!

Whether it’s a sarcastic comment or a roll of the eyes, displays of contempt come from feeling superior to your partner. Contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce, so really the only option is work together to eliminate it from your relationship. The antidote is building a culture of fondness, appreciation and respect. While all couples get frustrated with aspects of each other’s personality, happy couples still feel that their partner is worthy of honor and respect.

Sharing fondness and admiration in your relationship doesn’t need to be complicated, and can be done even if you think those positive feelings are buried too deep beneath recent conflicts. It takes a certain measure of selflessness, as well as a conscious effort to become truly involved in your partner’s life and to understand their needs. To build support and trust between yourselves, keep in mind that the two of you are a team, so show your partner that you’re on their side. Use what you know about your partner in order to let them truly understand how much you love and respect them.

Antidote to Defensiveness: Accept responsibility

When we feel attacked, we respond defensively to protect ourselves. The problem is that being defensive never helps to solve the problem at hand and defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner because in effect you’re saying “the problem isn’t me, it’s you”. As a result, the problem isn’t resolved and the conflict often escalates further. The antidote is to accept responsibility, even if only for part of the problem, and express an interest in your partner’s feelings. This way you can feel more like a team working on resolving the problem together.

For example,

Defensiveness (ineffective): “It’s not my fault that we’re always late. You’re the one that took ages to get ready.”

Antidote: “Well, I can see how me getting home late was part of the problem. I need to be more realistic with the time it takes me to get home when there’s traffic.”

Antidote to Stonewalling: Stay connected, turn towards, self-soothe

Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws in some way from the interaction. The antidote is to practice physiological self-soothing. Initially you may need to do this by stopping the discussion and calling a “time out.” If you feel that continuing the argument will lead to you exploding at your partner or imploding (stonewalling) (neither of which will get you anywhere), taking a break is the best option.

Let your partner know that you’re feeling overwhelmed and that you need to take a break, however make a time to come back to talk about the problem after you’ve both calmed down so that the issue doesn’t just get left. You can then take some time to soothe and calm yourself (e.g. practice mindfulness meditation, listen to music, have a shower, exercise).

The really important thing to keep in mind is that even in happy, stable, and successful marriages and relationships, the Four Horsemen all occur. No couple is perfect! The difference in happy relationships is that the Four Horseman don’t occur as frequently, and when they do, those couples are more effective at repairing things and connecting with each other.

If you need help recognizing and dealing with these patterns in your own relationship, contact us for warm, professional support.

Written by Tal Schlosser, Clinical Psychologist & Couples Therapist