Why the Way You Fight Can Threaten Your Relationship
Conflict is inevitable. How you respond to it makes all the difference.
Posted June 30, 2014
If there’s one thing couples researchers have pounded into our heads in the last few years, it’s that it’s better to fight than to disengage.
John Gottman is most famous for his claim that he can predict divorce with 94 percent accuracy after only a few minutes of exposure to a couple (Buehlman, Gottman & Katz, 1992). He attributes this prediction, at least in part, to his ability to identify what he terms “the four horsemen of the apocalypse.” These include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Among the four, stonewalling—withdrawing to avoid conflict—might be the most toxic. Gottman normalizes fighting in relationships; the fact that couples fight doesn’t enter into his calculation (Gottman, 1999). It’s more the way they fight that concerns him.
He’s much more hopeful about engaged fighting than disengaged fighting.
Disengaged fighting looks like this: We have a conflict, you say something that hurts me, and I don’t talk to you for the rest of the day. Or night. Or week.
There are a lot of explanations for why being the object of this type of withdrawal is particularly damaging. One is that it actually activates pain centers in our brains that wouldn’t otherwise come into play. According to ostracism researcher Kipling Williams, even a brief period of ostracism can activate the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that detects pain (Williams, Forgas, Von Hippel & Zadro, 2005).
The silent treatment is akin to the “demand-withdraw” pattern many researchers have identified, in which one partner nags or confronts, and the other pulls away. A review of 74 studies that included more than 14,000 participants suggests that the demand-withdraw pattern is one of the most damaging types of conflict—and a major predictor of divorce. Researchers cite as evidence lower relationship satisfaction; poorer communication; less intimacy, conscientiousness, and agreeableness; more neuroticism and aggression; and even more physical problems (including immune, urinary, bowel, and erectile concerns) (Schrodt, Witt, Shimkowski, 2014).
For some couples, the demand-withdraw pattern starts from a healthy motivation: It can be effective to give ourselves a “time-out,” a few minutes to cool down and get perspective on a conflict. But longer periods of withdrawal, and especially intentional avoidance of one’s partner following a conflict, can erode even a strong relationship.
Couples therapists know this.
And they tend to see disengagement as the most difficult problem to treat (Whisman, Dixon, & Johnson, 1997). When I see couples in therapy, for example, I’m actually relieved when they fight or report fighting. To me, the fact that they fight means they still care. It also gives me something to work with. I know that I can help influence communication patterns, including conflict patterns.
But it takes a different kind of magic to completely fabricate, or rehabilitate, a sense of connection.
Buehlman, L., Gottman, J.M. & Katz, L. (1992). How a couple views their past predicts their future: predicting divorce from an oral history interview, Journal of Family Psychology, 5(3-4), 295-318.
Gottman, J. M. (1999), The marriage clinic: A scientifically-based marital therapy, NY: Norton.
Gottman, J. & Levenson, R. W. (2002), A two-factor model for predicting when a couple will divorce: Exploratory analyses using 14-year longitudinal data, Family Process, 41 (1), 83-96.
Schrodt, P., Witt, P. L. & Shimkowski, J. R. (2014), A meta-analytical review of the demands/withdraw pattern of interaction and its association with individual, relational, and communicative outcomes, Communication Monographs, 81(1) March, 28-58.
Whisman, W. A., Dixon A. E., Johnson B. (1997) Therapists’ perspectives of couple problems and treatment issues in couple therapy. Journal of Family Psychology,11, 361–366.
Williams, K. D., Forgas, J. P., Von Hippel, W., and Zadro, L., Eds. (2005), The social outcast: Ostracism, Social Exclusion, Rejection and Bullying, New York: Psychology Press.