Resolve a relationship conflict effectively

Sarah Abell invites you to improve your love life with small changes each month in our Love Life Lab Experiment – and this time she's exploring communication


Resolve a relationship conflict effectively

In any relationship, a certain amount of conflict is inevitable and normal, but what is important is how you handle that conflict. Your relationship is more likely to fail if you allow certain kinds of negativity to run rampant through your arguments.

Psychologist and marriage researcher Dr John Gottman believes that there are four distinct types of destructive communication style, all of which can be potentially lethal to any relationship. He calls these different styles ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’.

They are: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Most couples will experience their presence at some point, but if you want a relationship that lasts, it’s imperative that you don’t allow them to take up permanent residence.

The theory

Gottman is able to tell whether a relationship will succeed or fail with 94 per cent accuracy by watching a couple for just three minutes during a conflict discussion. He uses the metaphor of the horsemen to describe the negative communication styles that can predict the end of a relationship. The good news is that antidotes do exist for those who want to keep the horsemen at bay.

  • Criticism: This involves attacking your partner’s character rather than focusing on the particular behaviour they display that bothers you. The antidote for criticism is to complain without blame. Talk about your feelings using ‘I’ statements and then express a positive need. For example, ‘I hate clutter and feel stressed when the kitchen’s a mess. I’d really like it if you could keep the counters clear.’
  • Contempt: These are statements that come from a place of perceived superiority. These might include using sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery or hostile humour. The antidote is to build a culture of appreciation and respect.
  • Defensiveness: When you are defensive, you will do things like make excuses, deny responsibility or trump the other person’s complaint with one of your own. When you are being defensive, it’s hard to tune in to what your partner is saying. The antidote is to accept responsibility, even if it is only for part of the conflict.
  • Stonewalling: This is when you refuse to respond, then check out of the conversation. It often happens when you feel overwhelmed or ‘flooded’. When this happens on a regular basis it can be damaging, because you’re pulling out of the relationship rather than working out your problems. The antidote is to practise self-soothing. Let your partner know how you’re feeling, take a break to get your head and emotions together, and return to the discussion once you feel less overwhelmed.

Try this

One thing that separates happy couples from miserable ones is the balance between their positive and negative interactions. Gottman talks about the 5:1 magic ratio. This month, make sure you have at least five positive interactions with your partner for every negative one.

Sarah Abell is the author of Inside Out – How To Build Authentic Relationships With Everyone In Your Life (Hodder, £8.99). Find out more at To buy her LifeLabs Practical Wisdom online course How to Save Your Relationship, please click here. You can try a free 3-day taster trial first too.

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