All relationships will have conflict at some point. Some couples are great at being able to manage conflict and turn it into a positive experience of learning about their partner, gain insight into some of their own behaviours and grow as a couple. However, at times couples can get stuck in a cycle of conflict that they cannot manage. John Gottman, of the Gottman institute determined that there are four behaviours that are present in couples that are stuck in conflict, and he found that they can be very damaging to the relationship. The four traits he found are:
· Criticism: attacking the character of their partner. An example of this may be “you never ask me about my day, you are such a selfish person”. The antidote to this behaviour is a complaint, where the focus is on the behaviour and not the character of the person, such as, “I am feeling left out when you don’t ask about my day, can we please talk about my day?” When you make a complaint rather than a criticism, the person receiving the complaint is far less likely to become defensive and is more likely to take on board the complaint.
· Defensiveness: According to Gottman, defensiveness is defined as self-protection in an 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 take genuine responsibility for your part of the issue, even if it is only a small part.
· Contempt: statements that come from a relative point of superiority can be called contempt. This can look like sarcasm, cynicism, name calling, eye rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humour. According to Gottman, contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce and needs to be eradicated. As the contemptuous behaviour continues, it erodes the culture of respect and appreciation in the relationship.
· Stonewalling: is when a person withdraws from an interaction. When someone feels flooded with emotion such as frustration or anger, they may look like they shut down and withdraw. When someone is feeling flooded, it can be seen in their physiology, such as heart rate and a surge of stress hormones, this can either lead to exploding at your partner or imploding (stonewalling). Therefore, the antidote to stonewalling is to physiologically self-soothe. It is best to take a break from the discussion for at least twenty minutes, distract yourself with something soothing and then return to the discussion once you’ve physiologically calmed down. It is important to note, that you should not engage in hostile thinking while on this break such as “I don’t have to take this anymore”. That will not lead to calming, but it is more like rehearsing your anger and lead to a negative outcome.