Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


4 Things You Can't Do When You Fight With Your Partner

There's a reason the experts call these the "Four Horsemen."

Artem Furman/Shutterstock
Source: Artem Furman/Shutterstock

The last time you got into a fight with someone close to you, what emotions did you feel? How did you act? Did you criticize the other person, call them names, or roll your eyes as you sat in stony silence? Did you get defensive when they tried to explain what was wrong? Or were you able to joke around and lighten the mood?

Everyone fights, but we differ in how we deal with conflict. And it turns out that how we deal with conflict says a lot about the future of our relationships. By watching couples fight, researcher John Gottman discovered what not to do if you want to make your relationship last, and published seminal research on what behaviors to avoid if you want a happy ending for your relationship. Gottman discovered that four behaviors are particularly detrimental to relationships. He termed them “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."

1. Criticism

It’s okay (and can be healthy) to complain about what’s wrong in your relationship. The problem arises when complaining turns into criticizing. A complaint focuses on the event or behavior you want to change, while criticism attacks a partner’s personality. When you find yourself generalizing that your partner “always” or “never” does something, you are falling prey to criticism. For example, I may want to let my husband know that I find it annoying that we don’t travel very often. I could just tell him that I wish we traveled more. Or I could blame him for this problem and say, "We never travel because you are always so selfish and don’t care about my interests.”

What to do instead: Try to state your complaint without blame. Let your partner know that you are unhappy about something, but don’t make it their fault, and avoid the terms "always" and "never."

2. Defensiveness

This one is particularly hard for me. When someone suggests I’ve done something wrong, my instinct is to react quickly with, “It’s not my fault,” followed by some excuse. Sometimes I go so far as to do this preventively—defending myself before I’ve even been accused. Defensiveness also occurs when you respond to a partner’s complaints with complaints of your own: When your partner lets you know they find it annoying that you leave empty shampoo bottles in the shower, you respond by pointing out that you find it annoying when they don’t make the bed.

What to do instead: The problem with defensiveness is that it doesn’t allow you to see your role in a problem, and it's frustrating for the other person who feels like they aren’t being heard. Take responsibility. If your partner lets you know that something you do bothers them, consider if they might be right and look for your part in the problem. I finally learned this lesson one summer during college when my sister and I were painting our parents’ house together. Every time I’d make a mistake and she’d notice, I’d get defensive, she’d get frustrated, and it just went downhill from there. Halfway through the summer, I decided to try a different tactic: The next time she saw a mistake I’d made, I assumed responsibility, apologized, and asked what I could do to fix it. My sister told me it wasn’t that big of a deal and not to worry about it, just be aware for the future. I was amazed by how differently things turned out when I resisted the urge to be defensive and instead owned up to my mistakes.

3. Contempt

Everybody has angry moments, but when you begin to feel contempt for your partner, that’s a clear sign that something needs to change. Contempt is the best predictor of divorce. It's the feeling that you are better than your partner, and it comes out when you make derisive comments with the intention of being insulting. If you are calling your partner names, mocking your partner, and being sarcastic or rolling your eyes at him or her, you are likely feeling contempt. Sometimes you might tease your partner in a spirit of playfulness, which is beneficial. But if you find yourself teasing in a mean-spirited way, such as making fun of something you know they are sensitive about, that is a sign of contempt. (And calling your partner an idiot, and meaning it, is a surefire sign your relationship is in the dumps.)

What to do instead: Instead of focusing on all the things that you hate about your partner, build a culture of appreciation in which you focus on what your partner adds to the relationship. If you are feeling contemptuous, perhaps you just need to take a moment to imagine what your life would be like if you’d never met your partner.

4. Stonewalling

Stonewalling is not so much about what you do, but what you don’t do. Imagine how a stone wall would react to you when you told it how you were feeling. When you sit in stony silence or utter single word answers, you are disengaging from an interaction. This happens in response to feeling overwhelmed by your partner’s strong negativity. (Gottman has found that men are more likely to engage in stonewalling than women.)

What to do instead: Instead of disengaging as a response to being overwhelmed, try letting your partner know that you need to take some time to calm down and plan to return to the conversation when you feel more relaxed.

Although I have described the four horsemen separately, they often go together—criticism from one partner may lead to the other’s defensiveness, which may promote feelings of contempt, and, eventually, stonewalling.

Couples who can joke, laugh, and share moments—a touch or a quick smile–during a fight are better at combating this negative cycle and happier in their relationships.

Do you have experience with the four horsemen? Are there other behaviors you think are destructive for relationships?

More from Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today