All couples argue, but why do some escalate into damaging territory and others keep it manageable and constructive? According to Dr John Gottman, a renowned relationships researcher, repair attempts are the “happy couple’s secret weapon.” Typically, we think of repair in terms of something being broken and needing repair, as in a car or dishwasher. But in relationships, repair is less about fixing what is broken, and more about getting back on track.

Happy couples repair early and often, and they have many strategies for repairing, both verbal and nonverbal. Gottman describes a repair attempt as “any statement or action – silly or otherwise – that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.” The word “any” is key: if you have arguments with your partner, you need to be creative and develop your own unique repair strategies that will work for your relationship.

For a happy relationship you need to master the art of repairing, which includes both making and receiving repair attempts. Notice and acknowledge when your partner makes a repair attempt and try to receive rather than reject it. It takes courage and insight to make a repair attempt, and it’s a sign from your partner that they don’t want to feel the pain of another fight. If you’re not quite ready to receive a repair attempt then at the very least acknowledge and thank your partner, and explain that you need some time to calm yourself. It is then up to you to come back (sooner rather than later) and make a repair attempt yourself to get the relationship back on track.

Gottman has developed a Repair Checklist, which is a list of phrases grouped into categories. It’s designed for use when a conversation with your partner escalates and goes off track into negative territory. The idea is to review the list together and choose the phrases that may or may not work to help you de-escalate a conversation before either of you becomes emotionally overwhelmed.

Keeping in mind that some of these may not work for you, some possible repair attempts include:

  • Using humour (but not at the expense of your partner);
  • Asking your partner what they need from you right now;
  • Validating your partner’s feelings (e.g. “It sounds like you’re feeling hurt”);
  • Apologizing with sincerity (e.g. “I’m sorry I jumped to conclusions”);
  • Touching your partner gently;
  • Asking your partner if you can both take a break;
  • Gently reminding your partner that you’re on the same team;
  • Empathising with your partner (e.g. “If I was in your shoes I understand that you would see it that way”);
  • Taking responsibility for your behavior or part in the conflict;
  • Telling your partner you love them and you didn’t mean to hurt them;
  • Explaining to your partner how you got triggered and how you plan to avoid or manage this in the future.

You can attempt a repair at any point in an argument, even if things get heated — but it’s best to try to repair early. Repairing is not an admission that your partner was “right” or that they have “won”. Rather, a repair attempt is an act of loving behaviour not only to your partner but also to the relationship you share. It’s about putting your relationship first and ensuring that your relationship wins the fight.

Renowned relationships researcher Dr. John Gottman can predict the future success or failure of a relationship with 94% accuracy within the first three minutes of observing a couple having a conversation. The bases for his predictions are four potentially destructive communication styles that he has referred to as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” This is a metaphor depicting the end times, and Gottman uses this to describe communication styles that can predict the end of a relationship. Learning to recognize these is the first step to building a healthy and loving relationship.

First Horseman: Criticism

When we criticize our partner we imply that there’s something wrong with them; that they are the problem. If you frame your complaint as if there’s something defective in your partner, you attack your partner at their core and imply that there’s something wrong with their character. Using words like “You always” or “You never” are common ways to criticize.

The problem with this type of criticism is that the victim feels bad about themselves, neither of you feel heard, and the result is often further escalation of conflict. Expressing your feelings is fine, but it’s about how you do it.

Second Horseman: Contempt

When we communicate with contempt we are treating our partner with disrespect, mocking with sarcasm, ridiculing, name-calling, mimicking, threatening, and/or using body language such as eye-rolling. It’s any behavior that puts you on higher ground than your partner. Gottman’s work has found that couples that communicate in a contemptuous way are more likely to get sick (e.g. colds and flu) as their immune systems weaken, and according to his research contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce.

Third Horseman: Defensiveness

When we feel attacked or accused unjustly, we defend ourselves with excuses so that our partner will back off. It’s an attempt at self-protection, and can come in the form of counter-attack or taking an innocent victim stance. Unfortunately the impact is that your partner feels you don’t take them seriously and won’t be influenced by what they have to say, which can lead to anger or escalation by your partner in an attempt to get their point across.

Fourth Horseman: Stonewalling

Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the conversation, when one person shuts down and closes themselves off from the other. Instead of confronting the issues with our partner, we make evasive maneuvers such as turning away, avoiding eye contact, acting busy or physically leaving. This can have the consequence of your partner feeling you don’t care enough to talk, however, stonewalling is often a reaction to feeling overwhelmed internally (what Gottman calls being “flooded”) and can be an ineffective attempt to calm down. This can result in a negative cycle of pursuing and withdrawing, with your partner escalating their behavior to get a response.

The good news is you can learn to recognize and change these communication patterns. Below we have outlined Gottman’s antidotes to the Four Horseman, with the tools to build a more connected and loving relationship.

Above, 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.

While we don’t currently offer couples therapy at MyLife Psychologists, if you feel you need support with your relationship difficulties it can help to work with a trained professional. To find out more or to make an appointment for individual therapy to address your relationship challenges you can contact MyLife Psychologists.

Written by Tal Schlosser, Clinical Psychologist