Relationship Conflicts: Recognize the Four Horsemen


Conflict in relationships is inevitable, but it can also inspire and nurture growth. Being exposed to different points of view challenges us to broaden our perspectives, helping us become more empathic, patient, and understanding of others. But when conflict in your relationships arises, it is important to convey respect and create a safe place for the other person to express their thoughts and feelings so that conflict does not spiral out of control.

Often this is easier said than done. As you’re reading this, you may have thought of a recent conflict with a friend or loved one that “went south.” Research done through the Gottman Institute in Seattle has shown that there are four specific behaviors that can occur during conflict that are more corrosive to relationships than others. They are called the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (Gottman, 1999), and they are:

  • Criticism. “Any statement that implies that there is something globally wrong with one’s personality, something that is probably a lasting aspect of the partner’s character.”
  • Defensiveness. “Any attempt to defend oneself from a perceived attack. Defensiveness includes denying responsibility for the problem, and this fuels the flames of marital conflict because it says the other person is the guilty party.”
  • Contempt. “Any statement or nonverbal behavior that puts oneself on a higher plane the one’s partner. Contempt is the most corrosive of the four Horseman and will destroy trust in the relationship the most quickly.”
  • Stonewalling. “Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction. Stonewalling occurs when one party becomes emotionally flooded and is in fight or flight.”

Research and experience counseling couples have shown me that the Four Horsemen can make an appearance in even the healthiest of relationships from time to time. They become most troublesome when they take up permanent residence. Try this tip: to maintain a healthy relationship, try for a ratio of 1:5 negative to positive interactions during times of conflict and stress. Gottman’s research shows that the ratio can climb to 1:20 during times of happiness and peace in a relationship. While no relationship is perfect, it’s a step in the right direction if you can begin to recognize these Horsemen in your conflicts.

Luke Moore, LPC
Fort Lupton office

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