Resolving Conflicts in Our Relationships I:
How to Know if Your Relationship is in Trouble

©Tom Moon, MFT, 2005


After watching a couple communicate for just five minutes, psychologist John Gottman can predict, with 91 percent accuracy, whether they’ll break-up or stay together. He learned to do this by observing many volunteer couples interact in over night stays in a specially fabricated apartment in Seattle. While the majority of the couples were straight,  his sample also included 21 gay male and 21 lesbian couples (and his research found that there are few differences in the relationship dynamics between gay and straight couples.) The couples were instructed to act as naturally as possible, despite teams of scientists watching them behind one-way mirrors, taping every interaction, and tracking signs of stress or relaxation with sensors.

In analyzing the interactions, Gottman found that certain types of negative interactions, if allowed to run rampant, were so lethal to a relationship, that he termed them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. When a couple’s communication has become dominated by these kinds of exchanges, the relationship is in serious trouble:

1. Criticism. In successful relationships, Gottman found that a lot of complaining goes on. Both parties say what they don’t like and what bothers them about each other. But complaining isn’t the same thing as criticizing. A complaint only addresses the specific action that you don’t like, e.g. “I’m angry that you left your shorts on the bedroom floor last night.” A criticism is more global, tacking on jabs at your partner’s personality, e.g. “You’re always such a slob. You left your shorts on the floor again? Can’t you ever learn? Or is it that you just don’t care about me?” etc. Criticism adds blame and character assassination to a specific complaint. The easiest way to turn a clean complaint into a nasty criticism is to add the words “What’s wrong with you?”

2. Contempt. Behaviors like sneering, name-calling, eye-rolling, mockery and hostile humor all convey contempt or disgust toward a partner. Of the four Horsemen, Gottman found that contempt is by far the most lethal to a relationship. A close cousin to contempt is belligerence, a form of aggressive anger which contains threats or provocations. Contempt is usually a by-product of long-standing unresolved conflicts in a relationship, which lead to simmering negative thoughts about the partner. When a couple has reached the stage of mutual contempt, the relationship is infected with a kind of cancer and is in very serious trouble. Contempt is also physically unhealthy. The research showed that couples who are contemptuous of one another are more likely to suffer from infectious illnesses such as colds and flus, than other people.

3. Defensiveness. It’s natural to respond to criticism or contempt by defending oneself, but Gottman found that this natural response rarely has the desired effect. The partner doing the attacking usually doesn’t back down or apologize. That’s because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner, of saying, in effect, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you. Defensiveness just escalates the conflict, which is why it’s so deadly to a relationship.

4. Stonewalling. This pattern tends to arrive later in a relationship, after the first three Horseman have created a negative spiral and created a sense of hopelessness about the possibility of resolving the conflicts. When criticism and contempt lead to defensiveness, which leads to more contempt and defensiveness, eventually one party tunes out. You come home, your boyfriend starts in on you, and you respond by walking out of the room. Or you stay, but you look down or away, and sit impassively like a stone wall, conveying the impression that you couldn’t care less about what you’re hearing. The mask of indifference is a sham, of course. Sonewallers are actually flooded with hurt, anxiety, and anger, and shut down to protect themselves from all that emotional turbulence. (Gay male couples take note: stonewalling is a strategy employed far more frequently by men than by women. This is partly because the cardiovascular system of men is more reactive to attacks than that of women, and slower to return to equilibrium.)

Gottman initially assumed, as do most couple counselors, that the key to saving relationships which had descended into these patterns was to teach them “fair fighting” techniques and better ways of negotiating their differences. But this common-sense idea wasn’t validated by the research. It turned out that what kept successful relationships healthy was not how the couple handled disagreements, but how they were with each other when they weren’t fighting. What helps a troubled relationship is not so much focusing on resolving the conflicts (in successful relationships, both parties recognize that some conflicts and differences are never resolved), but to work deliberately on nurturing their mutual fondness and admiration for each other through specific techniques. The cure for cancerous contempt is not to examine “causes” of the contempt, but to turn to the honor and respect that the couple once felt for each other, and to work at building on that. Next: Repairing a Damaged Relationship.