How we handle conflict in a relationship is critical to its survival. It’s not the absence of conflict that matters, it’s what we do with it. Research from the Gottman Institute has shown that couples that manage conflict poorly are highly likely to get divorced. The truth is that there is nothing wrong with fighting and conflict; it is how it is handled (or not) that makes the difference.
Criticism & Fault Finding
Criticism is when we blame a relationship problem on personality flaws in your partner. This includes rolling of the eyes as a negative non-verbal gesture. It’s really a way of fueling an attack: You state your complaint as an attack on the other person. What you’re going to get back is defensiveness or more criticism. But it’s not constructive. Instead, it leads to an escalation of the conflict. Examples of criticism include:
- “You always…”
- “You never…”
- “You’re the type of person who…”
- “Why are you so…”
Those who use criticism find fault with others and give negative labels to their partner. Most romance is ruined by our quest for perfection. Our problem in loving each other is expressed in our inability to forgive each other for our all-too-human flaws. We are reluctant to forgive because it gives us a sense of power over someone else.
Defensiveness is simply a way of refusing to take responsibility for the conflict that the two of you are having. Those with a defensive attitude never admit to problems. You can recognize them by the “Yes, but…” statements. Defensive people have to “win” and put the other down. We enjoy the role of being the long-suffering martyr and aggrieved party who has been hurt. You can recognize defensiveness when you hear things like:
- “I didn’t…”
- “That’s not true!”
- “You’re the one who…”
- “I did that because you…”
We act like an innocent victim or counter-attack your partner by criticizing them while ignoring their complaints. This is the opposite of good communicators, who say things like, “Ok, what’s your point” or “That makes sense to me, tell me more.” They take responsibility for even a small part of the problem. Then you’re kicking around the problem together, like you’re playing soccer and kicking around the problem. It’s like you’re a team working on this joint problem. Defensiveness gets in the way of this.
Withdrawal (aka “Stonewalling”)
The Gottman’s prefer to call this “Stonewalling,” which means shutting down completely and refusing to offer any verbal or non-verbal responses to your partner’s statements. Over 85% of my stonewallers are men. They’re not really trying to make things worse; they’re just trying to calm down and not make it worse. But when you’re faced with somebody who is silent like that, you can’t help but get upset. You can recognize stonewalling by the following behaviors:
- Becoming silent
- Changing the subject
- Giving the silent treatment
- Leaving the room
- Muttering or avoiding eye contact
Stonewallers withdraw into silence, into another room, don’t talk or respond. Withdrawal, whether physically or with alcohol/drugs, is a problem. The longer we nurse a grudge, saying others have hurt us or don’t care, the more we replay the negative messages in our minds – justifying our behaviors and lack of involvement with others.
Why is contempt so toxic? It combines criticism with an air of superiority, and we end up mocking the other person. You’re essentially saying, “I’m pretty close to perfect, but you are defective.” Contempt is the best predictor of divorce. It’s sulfuric acid for love. You need respect in a relationship, and contempt is disrespect. Contempt can also have physical repercussions: It’s a predictor of how many infectious illnesses your partner is going to have in the next four years; it erodes the immune system. Contempt is most easily recognized by:
- Insults (“Bitch”, “Bastard”, “Fat”, “Stupid”, “Ugly”, “Lazy”, etc)
- Hostile humor, sarcasm or mockery
- Rolling your eyes
We show contempt for our partner when we think they “are not smart enough,” “don’t get it,” “take too long,” and so forth. We essentially treat our partner as “less than”. There is a sense of being self-centered and focused on our needs and rights, and what the other needs to do for us to make us happy in the marriage.
This is not one of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, however I see it often enough that it’s too important not to mention. Those desiring control feel that they must have power over their partner. They demand that others follow their rules or wishes, “or else”. The inflexibility of control can infect even the closest of relationships. Being angry is also another way of maintaining power and control over others.