Updated: May 24, 2021
When working with couples, the one issue that frequently arises between partners is conflict. There are numerous reasons why couples argue (and definitely too many to list here) but all causes usually fit into three categories: 1. Couples may find that they have a perpetual, gridlocked issue that never seems to be resolved. 2. Couples may feel as though they are not heard, understood or validated by their partner. 3. Couples may feel that their partner turns away or against their bids for attention, affection or intimacy.
It may surprise you that the conflict itself is usually not the problem. Conflict is an important part of all relationships and can actually bring us closer. It is the way in which we argue that becomes an issue. When communicating while using one of “the four horseman of the apocalypse” we can break down communication and what started out as a simple discussion suddenly escalates out of control. Drs. John and Julie Gottman have labeled these “Four Horsemen”: 1. Criticism – It’s important to distinguish complaining from criticism. It’s ok to complain in your relationship. Complaining sounds like this: I am sad that you haven’t planned a date night for us in a while. I think our relationship needs that. Criticism sounds like this: “You never put me first in our relationship. Your friends always come before me. You are so selfish!” The difference between a complaint and a criticism is that a complaint addresses a specific behavior while a criticism is an attack on someone’s character (selfish, lazy, etc). 2. Contempt - Contempt is putting yourself on a superior level above your partner – looking down on them. It’s an attitude that reflects a position of superiority, a “I am better than you” in some way. They may view themselves as more intellectual, cleaner, responsible, worldy, more helpful. It’s a position of “I’m okay; you are not okay.” Contempt is displayed in a number of ways like mocking, name-calling, swearing and belittling. Eye-rolling is another subtle form. Sarcasm with a superficial edge of humor can also be contemptuous. Contempt usually gradually makes its way into a relationship as a result of feeling underappreciated and unvalued. This combined with a frustration that builds over time can lead to verbalizations that are contemptuous. Contempt is the biggest predictor of divorce we have. 3. Defensiveness - It’s easy to become defensive when we feel attacked. In fact, its human nature. But one thing we know for sure is that it doesn’t work in relationships. And it especially doesn’t work during an argument. Getting down to the heart of it, defensiveness is a way to protect oneself and ward a perceived attack. It’s also a way of blaming your partner. It can happen a few ways. First, there is defensiveness as a counter attack. If your wife says, “Please put the folded clothes away – you said you would last night” and you respond with “Well, what about all your paperwork you left on the dining room table….what about that?” Even if she does have papers on the dining room table, you are still being defensive as you are not taking responsibility for the issue of the folded clothes she brought to your attention. A second way of being defensive is to whine or play the role of the innocent victim. In the above example, this might include saying something like “Geez, I can never win with you – I can’t do anything right with you.” 4. Stonewalling - Stonewalling is tuning out. One partner acts as if they couldn’t care less about what the other is saying. They are physically there but seem disinterested. It’s like talking to a stone wall. When attempting to understand the conflict of a couple, it important to understand their worldview or inner world. Drs. John and Julie Gottman have coined this worldview the couple’s Love Maps. While knowing your partner’s favorite ice cream and who their best friends are is important, knowing and understanding their inner world is much more. How well do you know your partner’s stressors, deepest fears or worries? For example: If your partner came from a verbally abusive home, what was that experience like for them? How did it affect them both then and today? Are they fearful or anxious when emotions and voices start to rise during an argument? Do they exhibit a flood of emotion that doesn’t seem to match with the situation when this happens or do they shut down and/or retreat? This information into their inner world may make all the difference when trying to understand where your partner is coming from or what is driving their behavior. Why it may not resolve all or even some of your conflict with your partner, it will offer a better place for both to find compromise. Couples can become complacent with one another believing that they know all there is to know about their partner. This would be the couple who you see at the restaurant who are content with only making small talk at best and looking around at others to fill the silence. No one wants to be this couple, right? The truth is that people are ever-changing and adapting throughout their lives. Who you were last year or even last month may be very different from who you are today. Couples who take a more curious approach to their partner’s Love Maps can increase satisfaction, strengthen connection and renew their relationships. I suggest to all of the couples I work with to ask questions of one another and have an open-ended dialogue to continually learn about each other. There is a Love Maps app you can download to get you started with some fun questions. So, when you’re sitting across the table from your partner this Valentine’s, don’t be the couple in silence. Take a chance and ask some questions….you’ll be glad you did and so will your partner. Enjoy getting to know your partner this Valentine’s Day (even if all over again) and keep “the four horsemen” in their stables!