Unhealthy Conflict Patterns That Lead To The End Of Your Relationship

Unhealthy Conflict Patterns That Lead To The End Of Your Relationship

I’ve been doing some research lately and I came across Dr. John Gottman’s Four Horseman. Just for a little background, Gottman is famous for his extensive work on marriages and divorce prediction. He also discusses the right way to fight, something I wrote about in previous posts.

Back to the Four Horseman.

Gottman’s theory not only shows the wrong way to fight, but also shows that happy and successful couples fight and bicker…a lot (#blessup). It’s HOW they do so that makes all the difference.

His theory states that there are four patterns that will inevitably lead to the beginning of the end.


Criticism in arguments are not about the situation or how something was done or handled. Criticism, in this case, is about critiquing your partner and the person he/she is. Criticism can also be confused with just a complaint. The two are very different. Check out the example below:

  • Complaint: “I was scared when you were running late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.”
  • Criticism: “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. I don’t believe you are that forgetful, you’re just selfish. You never think of others! You never think of me!”

As you can see, criticism is far more personal than a complaint. However, just because you find yourself criticizing your partner doesn’t necessarily mean you guys are through. It does, however, mean that if you often find yourselves criticizing each other, you may fall into a pattern that gradually escalates. That escalation can lead to resentment, contempt, and ultimately a toxic relationship.


Ah, this one is rough. The worst part of arguing in this state is that it’s just mean af. The respect is out the window, and you’re just going for the jugular. The condescending tone makes it near impossible to not feel inferior and unloved. Below is an example:

“You’re ‘tired?’ Cry me a river. I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do when you come home from work is flop down on that sofa like a child and play those idiotic video games. I don’t have time to deal with another kid. Could you be any more pathetic?” 

This may not come as a surprise, but Gottman’s theory shows that contempt is the number one predictor of divorce. The negativity with this type of communication is so bad, that if it isn’t stopped immediately, you can pretty much say adios.


Defensiveness can be extremely frustrated. Essentially someone is not acknowledging their part in something, and they can even turn the blame back on you. I believe that someone gets defensive when they not only don’t want to take the blame, but they don’t want to let their partner win an argument – two frustrating concepts that don’t help anyone. Here’s an example followed up by how it could be handled instead:

  • Question: “Did you call Betty and Ralph to let them know that we’re not coming tonight as you promised this morning?”
  • Defensive response: “I was just too darn busy today. As a matter of fact, you know just how busy my schedule was. Why didn’t you just do it?”

  • Better response: “Oops, I forgot. I should have asked you this morning to do it because I knew my day would be packed. That’s my fault. Let me call them right now.” 


Stonewalling is essentially when someone completely withdraws from responding to anything at all. While it sounds like stonewalling isn’t that bad, it actually sucks ass because nothing ever gets resolved. Imagine the frustration when you want to resolve a conflict and your partner turns away and completely ignores you?

Stonewalling can come about out of frustration of always dealing with criticism or contempt. However, as stated above, it doesn’t help the situation to just completely shut down. Instead, try this example below:

“Alright, I’m feeling too angry to keep talking about this. Can we please take a break and come back to it in a bit? It’ll be easier to work through this after I’ve calmed down.”

Sooooo now what?

OK, so we went through each of the four horseman, now what? Well like I said earlier, the good news is that fighting and bickering is actually a sign of a healthy relationship. Conflict is good. Conflict, once resolved, can lead to increased intimacy and a sense of togetherness.

The first step is identifying how you guys argue. Do any of the above sound familiar? If not, GREAT! If so, identify triggers, communicate them with your partner, and see if you can avoid these things with the examples above.




Examples were provided by Ellie Lisitsa’s post on gottman.com. For more information, visit www.gottman.com.




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