What makes a successful relationship? Is it being so compatible as partners that there is no conflict? Not only does it sound unrealistic but science also disagrees. Conflict is a natural part of all relationships. What matters is the way partners manage conflict. As we have learned before, the four horsemen of the apocalypse; criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling can seriously threaten the wellbeing of relationships. These behaviours hinder the precious bond we have with our partners. Research reminds us that if we mindlessly welcome these horsemen at times of conflict, we will most likely end up with breaking up. Good news is that there are skill-based antidotes to each horseman, which we can gradually learn to cultivate. Here they are:
- Gentle start-up as an antidote to criticism: Criticism refers to attacking the partner’s core characteristics when in fact the problem is a behavioural one. The antidote is choosing complaint over criticism by making specific statements using the “I” language rather than the “you” language. Gently starting the conversation this way prevents blaming your partner and helps you to communicate your feelings and needs. Check out the difference between the following statements and guess which one invites defensiveness, the second horseman:
- “You are so irresponsible that you always arrive late on our dates!”
- “It makes me feel unimportant when I wait by myself at our dinner table for 20 minutes. I need you to be mindful of time on date nights because I want to spend more time with you.”
- Taking responsibility as an antidote to defensiveness: Defensiveness comes as a natural response when we are attacked at our very core, yet it is almost never useful. The antidote is to take responsibility, even if it is just part of the problem. That way, it is possible to block what defensiveness actually conveys (“The problem is not me; it is you!”). By de-escalating the argument at a relatively earlier stage, taking responsibility enables partners to meet on a common ground. Note the difference between the following statements:
- “I might be late, but you are so careless that you never attend to your phone when needed! I had texted you that I was going to be late.”
- “You are right, I should be more mindful of time. I texted you that I was going to be late, but it is understandable that you may not have seen it. I will try my best next time.”
- Building a culture of appreciation as an antidote to contempt: Contempt is a harsher version of criticism in which one of the partners assumes moral superiority over the other. The antidote is an ongoing effort to build a culture of appreciation and respect in the relationship. Research points out that it is easier than it sounds. There is no need to plan luxury trips or buy extravagant gifts. The key is to do small things often, such as expressing gratitude, complementing, or making simple gestures. The more couples cultivate positive feelings towards one another, the better they buffer against harmful behaviours like contempt.
- Physiological self-soothing as an antidote to stonewalling: Stonewalling happens when a partner is so emotionally loaded that they completely withdraw from the conversation. The antidote is practicing physiological self-soothing, which is a gentle way to remind your partner that you need time out. You can request a 20-minute break right at the moment you feel your anger is taking over. This is much better than waiting because what usually happens in the end is either stonewalling or losing your temper. It is important not to get stuck on the argument when you are on the break through. Do something that distracts you, such as listening to music or taking a walk. You will notice how different the argument will unfold when you come back.
Learning a new skill takes time and dedication. Now that you know how to recognize and dismiss the four horsemen, it is time to get to work. Be attentive when you communicate with your partner, especially when conflict arises. By integrating these antidotes into your difficult conversations, you can maintain a satisfying and peaceful relationship.
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Dilek Demiray is an intern at Willingness. She has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and she is currently completing her master’s degree in Clinical Psychology. As an aspiring psychotherapist, she is interested in third-wave cognitive-behavioural and systemic therapies.
Gottman, J. & Silver, N. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Three Rivers Press: New York.
Lisitsa, E. (2013). The Four Horsemen: The Antidotes. Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-the-antidotes/