I recently had a session with a couple who were concerned about the way they argue with each other. This is often a concern for the couples with whom I meet. After the couple asked me for a "fair fighting guide", I realized that I should put together a sort of "arguing how-to". It is unrealistic to expect couples to never argue. I realize that even after completing therapy, the couples I work with will continue to have disagreements. My hope is that they will leave my care with the tools to argue in a way that builds their relationship rather than tear it down. So, with that in mind, the following is a look at some of the behaviors in which couples engage in relationship damaging behaviors in the midst of an argument.
In order to better address this issue, I have called on the great therapist, John Gottman, via his book "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work". Gottman claims that he can predict divorce with 91% accuracy based simply on the way in which a couple argues. This is quite an astonishing prediction rate! So, it goes without saying that how you argue can have a tremendous impact on your relationship. John Gottman looks at specific behaviors as a sign of possible divorce. While Gottman points out several behaviors, we will look at what he calls The Four Horsemen. Before we address these horsemen, I want to make clear that if you are using these behaviors in your interactions with your partner, it does not automatically mean that you will get a divorce. What it does mean is that you are engaging in behaviors which are damaging to your relationship and you should make a change.
The first of these horsemen is Criticism. When in the middle of a heated argument, many people become critical of their partner. Throwing criticism at your partner is an attack on them personally, not on the behavior or action with which you are displeased. If your partner feels attacked, the possibility of reaching a solution becomes slim. Try to voice your concerns or complaints in a way that places the focus on the event or action that you would like your partner to change rather than on your partner personally. Allow your partner to maintain his or her dignity.
Once criticism shows its face, Contempt often follows. This is the sneering, eye rolling, sarcasm, etc that send the message to your partner that you are disgusted. Again, rather than directly addressing the issue that you are dissatisfied with, contempt is a way of attacking your partner. They way you say things is just as important as what you are saying. The meaning of your words can be completely different depending on how you say them. In fact, John Gottman considers contempt to be the worst of all four horsemen. Contempt damages trust in your relationship and tells your partner that they are not safe. Once again, remember that allowing your partner to leave the argument with his or her dignity still intact is crucial in avoiding damage to your relationship.
Just as contempt follows criticism, Defensiveness is triggered once one of you feels attacked. It is a natural human instinct to defend ourselves when we are attacked. We go into survival mode when we feel unsafe. While our lives may not be threatened by criticism and contempt, our emotional and mental health is at stake. However, becoming defensive only compounds the problem and usually means that both partners are criticizing each other.
After all of these, we arrive at Stonewalling, where one or both partners become exhausted or feels defeated and shuts down, avoiding any further interaction. Many of my clients often refer to this as going into a cave. When stonewalling comes in, a resolution is impossible. This often leads to a cycle of a repetitive argument.
If you find yourself employing these behaviors in your arguments, explore the areas where you can make a change. Discovering ways to build trust and safety in your relationship will lead to healthier, happier, more fulfilling lives for everyone in your family. After all, what each partner usually wants is love, acceptance, and validation.