According to researchers studying marriage and romantic relationships, the way a couple argues can tell a lot about the future of their relationship. In fact, researchers studying married couples at the University of Washington were able to predict with 91% accuracy whether a couple would stay together or divorce, primarily by analyzing the couple’s communication patterns during a disagreement.
What behaviors are most damaging to a relationship?
During my Master’s program, I was introduced to two types of conflict styles: direct and indirect. Direct conflict styles will be either competitive, compromising, or collaborative while indirect styles will be passive aggressive, yielding, or accommodating. At some point, all couples will experience conflict, but disagreement or fighting in and of itself isn’t predictive of divorce or separation. What is most damaging, researchers report, is the kind of arguing that includes:
- Criticism – complaints, verbal attacks, not satisfied, can’t win for losing
- Defensiveness – argumentative, reversing the blame, making your partner feel like they’re walking on eggshells
- Contempt – insults, disgust, no longer giving AF (this also happens to be the biggest predictor of divorce)
- Stonewalling – shutting your partner out, creating distance, whether physical or emotional
Communication researchers refer to these behaviors as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and yes, John Gottman coined the term from biblical references to the end of the world to signify the ending of a relationship. Dramatic, yes, but his theory is actually interesting. According to Gottman, these four ways of interacting can sabotage attempts at constructive communication and result in one or both partners feeling alienated, rejected, frustrated, angry, or unloved.
What you can do about it
If your relationship is suffering from these forms of negative communication, there is actually something you can do. For every action in the apocalypse staircase, there is an antidote.
- Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements when verbalizing your feelings. This takes blame away from your partner and they may feel less attacked when you make it about yourself. Even if it’s something they did, try expressing how you feel without mentioning them. For example, if your partner is always working or not spending enough time with you or not calling as much…whatever it is, say something like, “Is everything okay? I was starting to worry,” or “I would love it if we could spend more time together this weekend,” or “I feel like we haven’t been able to make time for each other as much.” The goal is to avoid using “you” and focusing on yourself or making it equal (we) so your partner feels less attacked.
- Take responsibility. Usually, defensiveness comes from a place of self-preservation. Don’t get me wrong, this antidote is not about being a scapegoat or taking the fall completely for something you didn’t do, however, if your partner feels a certain way, then it may help to see what role you may have played and take ownership for it. If nothing else, it can diffuse the situation. I think this is the part in the bible that says, “A soft answer turns away wrath.”
- Build a culture of appreciation. This is one of my favorite ones because as they say, “flattery will get you everywhere.” While this step can be achieved during conflict, it’s important to practice gratitude towards your partner on a regular, if not daily, basis. The Gottman Institute encourages frequent expressions of appreciation, gratitude, affection, and respect for your partner, no matter how small or insignificant they are. So for example, if your partner does something small, like IDK, remembering to pick up trash bags on the way home, don’t let this be just a fleeting thought in your brain, let your partner know, “Babe, thanks for remembering to bring home trash bags. I really appreciate that.” It may not seem like a big deal in the moment, but over time, it’s a reminder for you and your partner of how much they mean to you.
- Take a break. This may seem counterproductive but the antidote to withdrawal is to…withdraw. Kinda. Depending on your attachment style, some partners may prefer to completely disengage from conflict, and this isn’t always a bad thing. However, the key revisit the conversation once your emotions have settled. Gottman suggests a 20-minute timeout where you disengage from the argument and come back once you feel like you can express yourself more calmly, although this doesn’t always go according to plan. In the heat of the moment, some people are triggered with a “fight or flight” response. Having a time to reset can help you avoid exploding on your partner to the point of no return.
They say when you know better, you’ll do better, but that’s not always the case. It takes practice. Now that you have the tools to do better, use them to your advantage.