How to Avoid Divorce: Effectively Managing Conflict in a Relationship

By: Rochelle Perper, Ph.D. | November 18, 2016

Recently, I participated in a discussion on ESPN AM 1700 Real Talk Radio on the topic of “Avoiding Divorce: Conversations you Should Have Before Getting Married, and the Anatomy of a Healthy Relationship.”

During the conversation I introduced the concept of the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse,” a description of problem behaviors that, if exist in a relationship, can predict divorce up to 94% of the time. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute discovered these behaviors after decades of research working with couples. This article will reveal the Four Horsemen and how you can recognize these tendencies in your relationship so that you can eliminate them from your relationship.

The Anatomy of a Healthy Relationship

Even the most successful relationships have conflict. Research shows that it’s not the appearance of conflict, but rather how conflict is managed that predicts the success or failure of a relationship. Relationship conflict is natural and in some cases has functional, positive aspects. In fact, some conflicts won’t ever get resolved in a relationship – and that’s okay! As such, in this article I will use the word ‘manage’ conflict rather than ‘resolve’ conflict. Lastly, although the presence of these four behaviors does put relationships at risk for future problems, there are other factors that contribute to the likelihood of divorce including the intensity of these conflicts, the frequency, and how long these behaviors have existed between you and your partner. The good news is that there are antidotes to these behaviors and with hard work and commitment to work on these issues together, couples can change the way that they communicate and can thus enjoy a more fulfilling and healthy relationship.

The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse

1. Criticism
Unfortunately criticism is a very common behavior in relationships. Criticism is different than a complaint in that a complaint focuses on a specific behavior, whereas criticism is an attack on the character of the other person. For example: “You are so lazy!” (Criticism) versus “I am upset that you left your dirty dishes in the sink” (Complaint).

  • Antidote: You may be familiar with the expression Complain; Don’t Blame. Try making neutral observations about specific things instead of sweeping generalizations. Also, using ‘I’ statements is a very effective way of softening your approach to your partner.

2. Defensiveness
Many of us become defensive when we are being criticized, in an attempt to protect ourselves from a perceived attack. Although defensiveness comes from a place of wanting to defend our position, it comes across as blame towards your partner. As a result, the problem is not resolved and the conflict escalates further.

  • Antidote: As hard as it may be, we must be willing to accept responsibility, even for a small part of the conflict in order to move forward.

3. Contempt
Contempt breeds from resentments and past hurts. Contempt looks like sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye rolling, sneering, mockery and hostile humor. Contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce and must be addressed as soon as possible.

  • Antidote: As challenging as it may be, couples must find a place in their heart to build mutual appreciation and respect for each other. Try focusing on one thing that you like about your partner or offer a compliment.

4. Stonewalling
Stonewalling occurs when the listener completely withdraws from the interaction, most likely because he or she is feeling emotionally overwhelmed.

  • Antidote: If you are feeling emotionally overwhelmed, let your partner know that you need a break. The break should last at least 20 minutes, since it will be that long before your body physiologically calms down. During this time engage in self-soothing activities and healthy distraction. Once you come back from a break, you are likely to find a newfound perspective for the topic of disagreement.

When to Seek Help

Whether you are in a new or longer-term relationship, and whether you see signs of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse or not, engaging in couple’s therapy will provide you and your partner the support and insight you need to understand each other better and develop the skills to manage conflict in your relationship. Especially if you and your partner experience Contempt in your relationship, couples therapy will help you and your partner begin to reconnect with the desire that brought you together and rebuild a sense of trust and admiration.


Image: LearningLark on flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0

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