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Effectively managing conflict in your relationships

Beth Jackson

We as humans have a need for connection with other people.  Relationships can be a wonderful, enriching part of our lives.  While relationships can provide us with moments of great joy and happiness they can also be difficult and cause a lot of stress and pain.  Every relationship has conflict, relationship conflict is inevitably going to happen and is not necessarily a bad thing.  While it may not feel like it at the time you are dealing with the conflict, there are functional and positive aspects of conflict.  Harville Hendrix would tell us that “conflict is growth trying to happen”.  Learning how to effectively manage conflict without causing damage to your relationships is an important piece to the success of any relationship. 

John Gottman, author of The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work, is known for his research on couples and predictors of divorce.  One of the concepts he is well known for is what he calls the four horsemen of the apocalypse, which are essentially four things that can be destructive in a relationship.  The four horseman are:  criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling.  These are behaviors he has observed in couples that can be destructive and kill a relationship over time, he has found them to be consistent predictors of divorce.  Gottman’s research has found that it is not the appearance of conflict but how the conflict is managed that predicts the success or failure of a relationship.  Gottman tells us that the first step in effectively managing conflict in your relationships is to identify and fight the four horsemen when they arrive in your conflict discussions.  If any of the four horseman should enter into conflict and you ignore them he believes you will risk serious problems in the future of your relationship. While Gottman’s information appears to be common sense, in the heat of the moment when emotions are heightened it can be easy to lose sight of how to “appropriately” react towards our significant others, and we can easily fall into these damaging traps called the four horseman

While the majority of Gottman’s research applies to couples I believe the four horseman are important to be mindful of in ANY of our close relationships.  Our most intimate relationships tend to trigger intense emotions, both positive and negative, which may cause us to respond in ways we would not typically respond to an acquaintance. Whether you are interacting with a spouse, significant other, parent, sister, brother, daughter, son, close friend, etc… the four horseman can be detrimental to any relationship.  It is important to be aware of our behavior in the midst of conflict and pay attention to any sign of the four horseman and what Gottman suggests as the antidotes to the four horseman.  These are important guiding principles to keep in mind when dealing with conflict in any relationship.   When we are involved in a relationship with another person our behavior has an impact on that person, so it is important to consider how we are going to respond during conflict before reacting harshly to emotions and potentially damaging the relationship.    

Listed below are descriptions of each of the four horseman of the apocalypse and the antidotes for fighting off each one of them

Criticism: the definition of criticism is stating one’s complaints as a defect in one’s partner’s personality; giving the partner negative trait attributions.

A complaint focuses on a specific behavior, while a criticism attacks the character of the person. The antidote for criticism is to complain without blame. Talk about your feelings using I statements and then express a positive need. What do you feel? What do you need?

  • Criticism: “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish.”
  • Antidote: “I’m feeling left out by our talk tonight. Can we please talk about my day?"

Defensiveness: Defensiveness is defined as self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in attempt to ward off a perceived attack. Many people become defensive when they are being criticized, but the problem is that being defensive never helps to solve the problem at hand. Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You're saying, in effect, the problem isn't me, it's you. As a result, the problem is not resolved and the conflict escalates further. The antidote is to accept responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict. 

  • Defensiveness: “It’s not my fault that we’re always late, it’s your fault.”
  • Antidote: “Well, part of this is my problem, I need to think more about time.”

Contempt: Contempt involves statements that come from a position of superiority. Some examples of displays of contempt include when a person uses sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, mockery, and hostile humor. Contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce and must be eliminated. The antidote is building a culture of appreciation and respect.

  • Contempt: “You’re an idiot.”
  • Antidote: “I’m proud of the way you handled that teacher conference."

Stonewalling: Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction, it is emotional withdrawal.  The antidote is to practice physiological self-soothing in order to stay emotionally connected. The first step of physiological self-soothing is to stop the conflict discussion.  If you keep going, you'll find yourself exploding at your partner or imploding (stonewalling), neither of which will get you anywhere. The only reasonable strategy, therefore, is to let your partner know that you're feeling flooded and need to take a break.


Relationships are hard work but the rewards of a positive relationship are well worth the work.  If you are looking for support on your own or with someone else you are involved with to better manage your relationships contact me at beth@ca4wellbeing.com or 706-425-8900 ext 711