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It's Not What You Fight About, It's How You Fight

Avoid these four toxic messages

“We were on a break!”

“She was a stripper!”

“There’s no time, there’s never any time!”

The above lines, from Friends, the Real Housewives, and Saved By The Bell, all depict messages expressed during relational conflict. Such conflict is inevitable, common, and consequential in close relationships. In newer relationships, studies suggest that most couples do not make it past their “first big fight.” For those couples that do progress on after this argument, they are not in the clear: couples will continue to experience conflict. The question then becomes how should couples communicate during conflict?

There is no simple answer to this question as there are volumes of research and courses on communication during conflict. Instead of attempting to present an impossibly exhaustive list of “to do’s” during conflict, I will review four messages that you should actively avoid.

Before reviewing these messages, let me first tell you how toxic these messages are to relationships. John Gottman, based on numerous years of research, identified these messages and termed them “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Such a miserable name was given because they are indicative of impeding relational termination. That is, Gottman and colleagues have been able to predict divorce based on these messages. As one example, this research team tracked newlywed couples over 14 years and were able to predict, with 95% accuracy, whether or not couples would get divorced based on the presence of the “Four Horsemen.”

The Four Horsemen are: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. These are argued to work in a cycle. Criticism leads to defensiveness, which then leads to contempt that leads to stonewalling. A closer look at these messages follows.

*Criticism: This involves a personal attack on your relational partner. An important aspect of criticism is that it is destructive, not constructive. Instead, work on describing, rather than evaluating, the behavior. Example: “I have noticed that after dinner you don’t do your dishes” versus “you’re lazy.”

*Defensiveness: This involves a focus on refuting the claims made by your partner. Here, you aren’t actively focusing on solving any issues, which should be the goal of a conflict; instead you’re focused on debating claims made by your partner.

*Contempt: This involves a lack of respect and the feeling that you are superior or above your partner.

*Stonewalling: Most commonly, this involves the silent treatment. This represents withdrawal in relationship and, beyond Gottman’s work, is shown to be a problematic and toxic cycle in relationships.

So what should couples do when faced with conflict? As entire courses are offered in communication and conflict management, only brief recommendations can be made here. First, avoid using the previously described “Four Horsemen.” Second, work to identify where your goals overlap. Conflict stems from perceived incompatible goals, so work to see where your goal and your partner’s goal overlap. Build off of that common goal (which, as hard as it may be to identify, does exist). Finally, if you are skilled at this, work at using appropriate humor. My own work indicates that those who are highly humorous communicators report experiencing less conflict in general. In addition, when humorous communicators do experience partner conflict, it is less intense and hostile than those who are less humorous communicators.

If you’re in a romantic relationship, then you will continue to experience conflict. That said, it is not what you fight about--it is how you fight. Make sure to fight fair and to avoid toxic communicative messages.

Follow me on Twitter @therealdrsean for relationship commentary/links, complaints about mass transit, and support for WVU Athletics. Continue to follow this blog for future entries about deception, online dating, using affection to lie, workplace romance, and other issues that make obtaining and retaining a mate oh so interesting.