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The Four Horsemen of Conflict

By Marissa Tolero

THU FEB 18, 2021

Given this past weekend was Valentine’s Day, I thought it’d be a great time to check-in on relationships, love, and what is naturally going to happen when people come together: conflict.

The “Four Horsemen” are conflict communication styles the Gottman Institute has identified after years of research to predict the end of a relationship. While this research is based off monogamous cis-het couples, these conflict styles and antidotes apply to queer and poly relationships as well as other significant relationships where conflict arises (friendships, family, etc.) If you recognize yourself in any of these "horsemen", know it is completely normal and common. The good news is there are indeed antidotes - positive behaviors to counteract these negative communication styles that might show up in a relationship.

1. CRITICISM

The first horseman is criticism, which is different than offering a critique or complaint. These are about specific issues or situations where criticism is an attack on your partner’s character. Criticism often uses blanket statements like “you never..” or “you always..” and includes character judgments such as “you’re just selfish” or “you’re careless” and so on. These statements are hurtful and leave your partner feeling assaulted and rejected.

The Antidote to Criticism: The Gentle Start Up

The Gottman’s identify the antidote to this particular horseman as a technique called the Gentle Start Up. This means using “I” statements to talk about your feelings, labeling the situation that made you feel that way (and not your partner’s characteristic) and expressing a positive need. A positive need means requesting your partner to DO something as opposed to NOT do something. Take a look at this example:

Criticism: “You only ever talk about your day. Why are you so selfish?”

Gentle Start Up: “I’m feeling left out of this conversation and I need to share something that happened today. Can we please talk about my day?”

2. CONTEMPT

The second horseman is contempt, which is beyond criticism. It is disrespect, disgust, ridicule, belittling. It’s looking down at your partner and seeing yourself as superior. It can be mocking and sarcastic and includes body language like scoffing or eye rolling. Contempt makes your partner feel small and worthless. This is where name-calling comes into play.

The Antidote to Contempt: Build Culture of Appreciation

To help protect against contempt, the Gottman’s recommend building a culture of appreciation. This means taking the time every day to remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities and to feel and express gratitude for them. Identifying specific things to be grateful for is especially effective. By building this culture you are making “deposits” into your “relationship bank” that will help buffer against contempt when you are in the midst of a conflict. Take this scenario for example:

Contempt: “You’re too tired to take the trash out? Oh, please. I was the one working all day and you call yourself tired?! You’re just a lazy bum.” *scoffs and rolls eyes*

Culture of Appreciation: “I understand you’ve been busy lately, but could you please take the trash out? You help around the house so much and I’d really appreciate this help so we both can have a clean living space.”

3. DEFENSIVENESS

The third horseman is defensiveness, which is usually a response to criticism. We’ve all been here and when we feel unjustly accused or attacked, we respond in a way that is protective and deflective, often coming up with excuses or even reversing blame. This can make our partner feel like we don’t take them or their concerns seriously. This strategy, as common as it is, is almost never successful because it just ping pongs blame and defenses back and forth.

The Antidote to Defensiveness: Take Responsibility

Take a moment to listen to your partner’s concern before responding. Consider where there is an action you could have taken or if you can take responsibility, even if just for part of the conflict. Learning to hear feedback without taking it as a personal attack is a skill and this takes practice. Identify where you can take responsibility, even if just for something small. This small act does not mean you are a bad person or that you are responsible for everything wrong in your relationship, it just means you are taking accountability if and where you can.

Defensiveness: “It’s not my fault we’re going to be late. You’re the one who decided to get dressed at the last minute.”

Taking Responsibility: “I don’t like being late and I could have expressed what time I would have liked to leave by earlier. I can be a little more communicative and flexible next time.”

4. STONEWALLING

The fourth and final horseman is stonewalling, which is usually a response to contempt. It occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction, shuts down, and simply stops responding. Rather than engaging with their partner, stonewallers can “turn away” (literally or figuratively) or tune out. Stonewalling is an “out” that is essentially a person going into fight or flight mode. They are so overwhelmed by the interaction that their cortisol levels (stress hormone) are flooding their body and they are not able to think clearly or respond effectively. This can leave the other person feeling abandoned, rejected, and feeling like they are receiving “the silent treatment.”

The Antidote to Stonewalling: Physiological Self-Soothing

Recognize when you are entering fight or flight mode in a conflict and you are overwhelmed emotionally and physiologically. You are not in a state to engage with your partner right now. In this mode, it is imperative to step away and interrupt the survival mechanism your body has activated. To do this, express to your partner that you need a thirty minute (the minimum time for your body to deactivate) break from the conversation. It’s important to identify when you’ll return to the conversation so your partner doesn’t feel abandoned.

During the break, do not think about the fight. Distract yourself with something soothing: reading a book, watching TV, petting your dog, going for a walk, etc. The purpose of the break is to deactivate your nervous system and if you’re spending the whole time thinking of what to say and about the fight, your stress levels won’t come down. If the break time comes up and you’re still not ready, tell your partner you need more time. Once you’ve allowed yourself to truly soothe and calm down, you’ll feel like a whole new person when you return.

Stonewalling: “Look, we’ve been through this time and time again. I’m done talking about it and don’t want to hear about it anymore so leave me alone. ”

Self-Soothing: “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I’m feeling overwhelmed and need a break. Can you give me thirty minutes and then we can talk?”

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It’s important to emphasize that these antidotes can only be effective if both or all parties practice them and if they take place within a relationship that is based in trust, respect, play, and friendship. They do not work if you and your partner(s) don’t put in the effort during times of peace and only employ these in times of conflict. They are not quick tips and tricks. They are built on a foundation of a loving and respectful relationship and must be practiced together.

If you are having struggles communicating with your partner(s), especially during times of conflict, and feel you could benefit from more support, schedule a complimentary consultation for yoga+therapy today.