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How to Make Conflict Constructive for Your Marriage

Read to learn about the Gottmans' Four Horsemen of marriage conflict and how to address each one.

“Have you ever read The Brothers Karamazov?” I asked my husband.

“No, I don’t think so.” 

“Let’s go buy a couple of paperback copies tomorrow after work.”

“What are we going to do with them?” he warily asked.

“We’re going to read them together.” I attempted to sound casual as if people read 800-page, depressing Russian novels everyday. “Remember? It’s one of my favorite books.”

My husband didn’t sigh. He didn’t blink. He just silently glared at me. I knew he thought it was a horrible idea, but I also knew he wouldn’t say a thing because he was beginning to withdraw in conversation more and more with each passing day. 

Honestly, the book was a bad idea. It’s laughable in hindsight, but I was grasping for any way to connect with him. Each of us was undergoing a higher number of concurrent stressors than we were used to coping with. As a result, we began to fight more often and drift apart. I thought reading a good book might draw us closer through a shared activity. 

Surprise! It didn’t. 

With hindsight, I can now see some telltale signs that we were not managing conflict well. World-renowned marriage therapists Drs. John and Julie Gottman have studied couples communication and gathered four of the most common ways in which negative conflict manifests in relationships. They call these interaction patterns the Four Horseman — as in the four horsemen of the approaching apocalypse of your marriage galloping over the crest of a hill. 

Whenever the Gottmans saw one or more horsemen present (without getting help to redirect), they could predict with 91-percent accuracy that a marriage would end in divorce within 5.6 years. The good news? During their 20-year study, they not only zeroed in on the four most negative conflict styles, but also how to counteract them with corresponding antidotes. 

Criticism

The first horseman is criticism — that biting attack that feels satisfying during the two seconds it takes to say, it but quickly becomes a sour aftertaste. Criticizing is passing judgment on your spouse, which creates distance and puts your partner down. Even when we need to express frustration at a hurtful action or make confrontational requests, there are ways to do so without making a judgment of the other person. 

This is the horseman I was beginning to fall into when the stress in our lives increased. As it turns out, 80 percent of the time it is the female in a relationship who brings up issues of conflict, and is therefore more tempted to criticism. For example, getting ready to sleep one night during a mutually frustrating conversation, I remember a particularly harsh criticism: “I can’t believe I married an emotionally stunted work-a-holic.” My husband said nothing in response, turned over, and promptly fell asleep. How could this situation have gone differently for both of us? 

The antidote: Use the “soft start-up.” Purposefully choose kind words when making a request or giving feedback to your partner. I could have started my regrettable conversation more like this: “I’m not feeling ready to go to sleep because a few things are still bothering me. I know you are tired, but could you give me another 10 minutes to process what happened today? It would really mean a lot.” Wanting more time to talk isn’t the problem — how the message is delivered is crucial. 

One helpful approach in the soft start-up is to separate the person from the behavior. You love your spouse — but you may not love the way they load the dishwasher. That doesn’t mean they are a lazy person. If you say something that makes a judgment on who they are (“an emotionally stunted work-a-holic,” for example), there is no room for them to change their behavior. If you begin your conversation with a statement about a specific behavior, then they have room to respond. 

Contempt

Contempt is that feeling of moral superiority and haughty condescension that takes over when criticism brims to overflowing. It’s a feeling that not only does your partner do things differently than you’d prefer, but also the manner in which they do it is due to some significant defect, like a lack of intelligence, organization, or work ethic. My comment above expresses borderline contempt. I’m not only criticizing that my partner wants to head to bed before I feel ready, but I’m also making a jab at his outlook on life. 

The antidote: Cultivate respect. What qualities do you admire most? Nurture those memories and cultivate fondness to enable you to be more magnanimous toward their faults. It also helps to have the humility to remember that your partner is working with your strengths and weaknesses as well.  

Stonewalling

Stonewalling is the complete withdrawal from a relationship. Some people shout as soon as conflict occurs, but a person who stonewalls retreats. It’s been dubbed “silent screaming” by some psychologists because the emotional effect on the receiving partner is just as devastating as verbal abuse. My husband was most tempted by this horseman — and he’s not alone. About 85 percent of stonewallers in relationships are men. 

The antidote: Physiological self-soothing — doing those little things that enable you to stay calm and remain engaged. Had we known, my husband could have responded to my late-night request by saying something like,  “I am feeling the urge to shut down and go to sleep. Can you give me five minutes before we begin the conversation again? I want to be a part of this but need to refocus.” 

Defensiveness

Defensiveness is the regular shirking off of responsibility in a relationship. When one partner brings something up that is hurtful, the other immediately tries to prove they are beyond reproach. This pattern is tied to stonewalling in that silent withdrawal is another way to refuse to take responsibility. 

The antidote: Jump in and take ownership for a fair share of the praise and the blame. Instead of coming up with a long list of how you are not involved with the situation at all, ask, “How can I make things better?” 

After our first few years together, neither my husband nor I had expected the need to invest in intentional formation to develop a real, working marriage. We naively thought our union would always be a conflict-immune, bubble-like structure of awesomeness that we would use to face the harsh world together. At first it hurt to face the truth. It felt like a failure to be in friction so often. I remember being afraid because I thought my love for my partner was dying in a way. Maybe this is something you have felt, too, when you keep hitting roadblocks and the butterfly feelings of attraction are long gone. Every time I would pray, however, I would hear a line in my mind: “Young love must die so a stronger love can take its place.” 

It turns out that line was true. It was heartening to learn that nearly 70 percent of marital conflict cannot be resolved — but that’s okay. It’s not as important to solve a conflict as it is to engage in conflict well. Understanding and recognizing the four horsemen — and their antidotes — went a long way in creating a stronger love in our marriage. 

No 800-page, depressing Russian novels required. 

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