How to keep the four horsemen at bay
Despite what most people think, conflict is one aspect that signifies a healthy relationship. Though conflict can be uncomfortable, it is also unavoidable. Therefore learning how to manage conflict in a calm and productive manner can have both positive effects that strengthen the bond between two people and provide opportunities for growth and understanding. The Gottman Institute mentions that the first step in managing conflict is to recognize when the Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling, arrive during conversation and counteract their attack.
1 Criticism: Use “I” Statements
When we have a complaint it is often best to lead with specific examples, therefore keeping the criticism on the specific behaviour as opposed to attacking one’s character. By using “I” statements you avoid pointing the blame onto your partner and instead take ownership of your feelings and what you need in a more positive way.
“I feel_____ I need____”
2 Contempt: Wrap a Blanket of Appreciation and Respect
Contempt can manifest when a partner becomes sarcastic, cynical, starts eye-rolling, name-calling, mocking, interrupts, or even uses hostile humour during conflict. This can be extremely painful and therefore incredibly important to create a practice of appreciation and respect in your relationship. Regularly expressing appreciation, gratitude, and affection will allow more positive perspectives and thus alleviate unwarranted negativity towards your partner.
“I understand that you___but can you____I’d appreciate it”
3 Defensiveness: Take Responsibility
We become defensive when we feel like we are being criticized, often leading to victimizing yourself and turning the blame onto your partner. Instead of taking the criticism as a personal attack and deflecting it back onto your partner, accepting responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict, will help prevent conflict from escalating. If each partner can own up to their individual role in the conflict, they’ll be able to work towards better understanding and compromise.
4 Stonewalling: Soothe Your Nervous System
Stonewalling usually happens when you feel emotionally overwhelmed, so your reaction is to shut down, stop talking, and disengage with your partner. The intensity of emotions during conflict can create a lot of emotional pressure, which can trigger your nervous system into a fight-or-flight response. Therefore, the remedy for stonewalling is to learn how to recognize you are overwhelmed and self-soothe by taking a break from the conversation and doing something calming. Lisitsa, from the Gottman Institute, mentions that partners should take at least a twenty minute break because it will take that long before your body physiologically calms down.
“I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I’m feeling overwhelmed at the moment. Would it be okay if we took a twenty minute break so when we pick up the conversation later I feel more calm?
Hopefully recognizing when the Four Horsemen show up and how to deal with them, will help you better navigate conflict within your relationships. Conflict is never easy, but by using these tools you’ll be able alleviate the pressures of conflict and survive the “apocalypse”.
Blog post written by Yasmine Ross, Certified Relationship Coach and Content Writer at An Elegant Mind Counselling in Vancouver