In any relationship, after the honeymoon phase is over, couples can find themselves running into rocky ground. As you and your partner relax and get more comfortable with each other, you both begin to reveal a more natural version of yourselves and sometimes this is when the cracks begin to appear. In long term relationships, conflict arises over differences in opinions or values. Parenting, money and sex are common areas of relationship conflict.
Conflict in a relationship is not necessarily a signal that the relationship is doomed. In fact, studies have shown that it’s not the amount of arguments a couple has but how people argue which determines whether or not a relationship will succeed or fail. Dr John Gottman is a world-renowned relationship researcher and therapist who is famously able to predict (with astonishing accuracy) which relationships will succeed and which will fail after observing a couple discussing a heated topic for just 15 minutes. He suggests that there are four communication habits that spell disaster for any relationship.
If you are locked in battle with your significant other, it’s worth knowing what Gottman refers to as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and doing your best to avoid falling into these unhelpful relationship patterns:
Criticism is different from complaining in that rather than focusing on a person’s behaviour, it takes the form of broad generalisations about their character. Expressing a complaint is healthy in a relationship but when you start using generalisations such as “You always….” or “You never…”. When you attack your partner’s personality or character, that is criticism, not a complaint. We’re all guilty of being a little critical at times, but when criticism becomes pervasive, it erodes the quality of your connection.
Try to raise your points with specific examples of behaviours you consider to be problematic (and why). Avoid launching into an attack on your partner by expressing your needs in a positive way. Remind yourself that attacking your partner’s character is a fast way to escalate an argument and will not likely lead to the resolution of the issue.
Too much criticism in a relationship is likely to lead to contempt. Contempt is when you verbally or non-verbally communicate disdain for your partner. It could take the form of insults or even dismissive eye-rolling. Contempt has the intention to insult or belittle the other person. Perhaps unsurprisingly, contempt in a relationship is the single biggest predictor of divorce.
To avoid acting in contempt, focus on your partner’s positive qualities and the common ground that you share. Remember the reasons you are together in the first place and try to focus on the issue you are discussing rather than attacking your partner’s sense of self.
Usually defensiveness is a response to feeling criticised. It is refusing to take on board your partner’s feedback and making yourself a victim in the situation. Defensiveness sometimes leads to a pre-emptive attack, which is also unhelpful when trying to resolve an issue.
Overcoming defensiveness requires you to be open to hearing your partner’s feedback and being willing to accept any responsibility you have. Dropping your defensiveness means you need to trust that your partner is also willing to take their own share of responsibility and that you both have the best interests of your relationship at heart.
This is when one person gives the other the silent treatment or otherwise refuses to engage with their partner. It is psychologically withdrawing from the conversation, creating distance and disconnection perhaps because it’s too difficult to discuss. Just as defensiveness is often a response to criticism, stonewalling is usually a response to contempt. Being given the silent treatment by anyone (even if you don’t like the person!) feels painful and it is all the more unbearable when the person you love is the one who is ostracising you.
The antidote to stonewalling is to tell your partner you need some space or time and to then take the time to soothe your own discomfort. When you’re feeling calmer, you can re-enter the conversation.
Most couples who are in trouble wait far too long before seeking help so if you feel you and your partner are having trouble resolving your issues on your own, the key message is to ask for help early rather than waiting until the problems are too great and the relationship is beyond repair.