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Fighting Is Normal. But Watch Out for These Red Flags When You Fight


A man expressing frustration or anger towards a woman who is turning away

Conflict is inevitable in an intimate relationship. Many who study relationships would even say fights can be an important and necessary part of a relationship’s evolution, in which needs are expressed and boundaries are negotiated.  In the best of cases, in the aftermath of a fight you gain a greater understanding of why an issue is so important to your partner and what needs to change for a sense of equity and fairness to be restored. Even if the issue at hand is not necessarily resolved, the little bit of understanding that is gained with every fight can accumulate and over time strengthen a bond in a couple. On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, a fight can be corrosive. It can be a festering ground for resentment, frustration, and unresolved anger. A fight, at its worst, can feel toxic, slowly eroding the fabric of a relationship. 


So what can we do to increase our chances that a fight can be constructive and not destructive? What are the red flags to watch out for when you right? Research by Drs. John and Julie Gottman sheds light on this, based on extensive and rigorous data gathered over five decades studying thousands of couples. The Gottmans are said to be able to predict with over 90% accuracy which couples will remain married and which will end up divorcing based on observing how a couple fights. The Gottmans have identified what they call “the four horsemen of apocalypse,” which are the four culprits of toxicity in a fight. They are: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling - with contempt being the most toxic of all. Here’s a breakdown and examples of what each can look like:


Four horsemen of apocalypse

  • Criticism: stating your complaints as a defect in the partner’s personality


Example: You feel unheard by your partner, and you say: “You always only talk about yourself - you are so self-absorbed!”


  • Contempt: making statements that come from a relative place of superiority


Example: You do not agree with your partner on an issue, and you say: “You are so stupid to think that!” (and you might even shake your head in disgust)


  • Defensiveness: self-protection disguised as righteous indignation


Example: You break a promise to do a chore, and you say “Why are you always on my case about everything? You know how much stress I’m under! Why couldn’t you just do it!”


  • Stonewalling: withdrawing from the interaction and shutting down 


The issue can be about anything, but the response looks something like this: the person becomes unresponsive, turns away, and tunes out the other person.


It’s important to note that these four horsemen of apocalypse only make up one part of a bigger picture of a couple losing touch with one another. Each couple has unique circumstances that merit a tailored approach, and being vigilant about these four horsemen of apocalypse is only one part of a larger framework of couples therapy that I work from. At the same time, these horsemen’s corrosive impact is clear, and I draw your attention to them because awareness of a problem is the first step to combating it. In my work with couples, I aim to create a mediated space where one part of our work together is to identify, neutralize, and replace these behaviors with more constructive ones. So if you’re taking one thing away from this post, let it be this: conflict in an intimate relationship is normal - even healthy - but how you fight matters.

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