Managing Conflict

3. Managing Conflict: Couples that are able to understand and manage their emotions and behaviors, as well as understand how their partners respond to conflict, are significantly better equipped to have functional relationships. This is related to what is known as Emotional Intelligence. The Gottman’s have found that couples that are able to manage conflict do well, whereas those that don’t manage conflict well often divorce. The Gottman’s uncovered four behaviors that are exhibited during the conflict that either sustain conflict or lead to even greater conflict. I will discuss each of these behaviors, labeled the Four Horsemen, and also provide antidotes for each, below.

  • CRITICISM – The first of the four horsemen. According to John Gottman, most relationships have an element of “criticism”, but it is imperative that couples work on reducing the level of criticism that they give to their partner. Further, when a relationship becomes negative or highly conflicted, most feedback is perceived as negative. In fact, even constructive criticism is considered negative. Research shows that for every one criticism given, five positive statements are needed to counteract the negative effect of this one statement. This makes it difficult when a relationship is already negative, as it becomes extremely difficult to have positive interactions. The goal is not to be critical, which will help prevent a downward spiral.

Conflict Rules for Improving Couples Communication

  • DEFENSIVENESS – The second of the four horsemen and a major offender in relationships. It is one of the most frequent behaviors that I observe in couples therapy when there is conflict. Defensiveness is often a reflex action to criticism or to perceived criticism. Sometimes there is no criticism but just feedback stated. However, the individual on the receiving end responds by blaming the other for doing the same thing, denies their responsibility in the matter or whines and makes an excuse for their behavior. When the original speaker experiences the defensiveness of the receiver they often feel invalidated and alone and the couple becomes more distant. Antidotes to defensiveness are the following: (1) Remind yourself that a relationship is about being part of a team (not two individuals working against each other). (2) Rather than seeing your partner’s words as an attack, see them as strong expressions of feelings about the topic being discussed. (3) Acknowledge that you are not perfect. (4) Remind yourself of the positive qualities of your partner. (5) Most importantly, take some responsibility for the feedback your partner is expressing. Don’t apologize for something you have not done. Accepting even 10 percent of the responsibility, if it is due, will de-escalate tension, improve communication, and build trust.


  • STONEWALLING – The third of the four horsemen. Stonewalling is just as it sounds. It is avoidance or refusal to address or communicate about an issue or conflict. To the other partner, stonewalling often feels as though they are “talking to a brick wall”. In his research, Dr. Gottman found that 85 percent of men used stonewalling as a way of dealing with conflict, yet they did not realize that this was a very destructive strategy. Men often use a distancing technique to cope with high levels of emotion.  Remember that withdrawing from an argument does not solve it and “parallel living” has been found to be a consequence of this behavior over the longer term. Parallel living leads to pulling away from a relationship, leaving it vulnerable to outside forces. Also stonewalling leads to increased conflict and major meltdowns when the non-stonewaller begins to chase the stonewaller about an issue. At some point the stonewaller reacts with rage, often leading the couple to a regrettable incident. Antidotes to Stonewalling are as follows: Resist the temptation to withdraw –stay with your partner emotionally. Look for the good in each other. Make time for positive experiences. Don’t ignore your partner and give some sort of response even if it is just a nod or a brief reply. Further, it is important to practice good self-care to avoid stonewalling. We often stonewall because we are anxious about conflict. Conflict causes many of us anxiety. Again, in order to better manage the anxiety of dealing with difficult issues, it is important to practice good self-care like getting a good night’s sleep, exercising frequently, and maintaining a healthy diet. Avoidance is okay in a relationship as long as you are avoiding stonewalling.


  • CONTEMPT – The fourth of the four horsemen (belligerence is a term used by Gottman to describe a stronger form of contempt. Belligerence is also known as the cousin of the four horsemen).  Gottman believed that “contempt” was the most dangerous of the horsemen and he found that “contempt in a relationship” was predictive of divorce in 86 percent of cases. “Contempt” can be described as any behavior which causes your partner to feel “put down”. Examples include belittling your partner, treating them with disdain, eye-rolling, sneering, insults, name-calling, mocking, and cynicism.  Contempt can be as simple as having disdain or disgust with your partner in how they chew gum, eat, drive, or snore at night. Warning signs of “contempt” include: You no longer feel admiration for your partner. It is difficult for you to remember your partner’s positive aspects. You feel that your partner has severe personality deficiencies. Antidotes for contempt include: Focus on your partner’s positive qualities. Use “time-out” when you recognize that the situation is becoming heated. Watch your tone and facial expressions. Focus on the behavior and not the person. Most importantly, gain an appreciation of where your partner is coming from. Often when we are able to put our partner’s behavior in context, we have a greater appreciation of the cause or causes of their behavior and as a result, better see that their behavior is about them rather than about us.