Changing Your Approach to Conflict with Your Partner

Blog written by Katie Clay

Have you ever wondered why conflict with your partner feels seemingly impossible to address? Do you often feel like arguments rarely feel productive? If so, you are not alone! Most of us have felt this way, but there is hope. Learning what behaviors to avoid and what to do instead can help you and your partner change the way you approach conflict. 

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Dr. John Gottman has been researching relationships since the 1970s and is widely considered to be the resident expert on the topic in the counseling field. He has identified what he refers to as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” These “horsemen” are behaviors that can derail and sabotage our communication and connection with our partners. Thankfully, Dr. Gottman has also identified the “antidotes” to these behaviors.

The Four Horsemen

Criticism is identified by Gottman as “any statement that implies that there is something globally wrong with one’s partner.” Criticisms are sweeping generalizations about your partner. Criticism statements often begin with “you always” or “you never.” Criticism often evokes defensiveness from one’s partner.

An example of a critical statement is “You never thank me for the things I do. How self-centered can you be?” States such as these often attack one’s character rather than address a direct behavior. 

Defensiveness is “any attempt to defend oneself from a perceived attack.” Defensive comments deflect ownership or responsibility and shift the focus back to one’s partner.

An example is one partner stating, “It frustrates me when you forget to pay the water bill on time.” And, the defensive response being, “Why don’t you ever remind me to do things like that? You know how much I have going on.” 

Contempt involves “any statement or nonverbal behavior that puts oneself on a higher plane than one’s partner.” When someone is contemptuous, they are looking down on their partner or seeing themself as better than their partner. Contempt often includes name-calling and mockery. According to Gottman’s research, contempt being present in a relationship is the single best predictor of divorce.

A classic example of one having contempt is a spouse correcting your partner’s grammar when they are angry in the midst of an argument.

Stonewalling is the final horseman. It is defined as “when the listener withdraws from the interaction.” Stonewalling can be physically leaving or mentally and emotionally shutting down, being unreachable by the other person

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Some examples of stonewalling are avoiding eye contact, giving short responses, or not responding at all in conversation/arguments.

Learning to recognize when you and your partner are falling into any of the four behaviors listed above is key to replacing the Four Horsemen with their antidotes.

The Antidotes

Criticism- The antidote for criticism is learning to voice grievances without implying that your partner is defective.

A statement to correct criticism would sound like this: “It would mean a lot to me if you would verbally thank me for all that I do to care for our home.” 

Defensiveness– The antidote for defensiveness is taking ownership of your part in the problem.

A statement that takes ownership sounds like “I’m sorry I forgot. I know that adds stress to you.”

Contempt– The antidote for contempt is intentionally and frequently praising your partner, showing pride for who they are.

This is an example of praise: “You’re such an attentive father to our children. I appreciate you so much.”

Stonewalling– The antidote for stonewalling is learning to self-soothe and empathize with your partner to stay emotionally engaged.

To prevent stonewalling, one can do deep or slowed breathing, take a structured break with a specific plan of when and where the conversation will resume, or imagine what your partner is experiencing in the conversation and speak to that.

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When you begin to replace the Four Horsemen with their antidotes, you and your partner create a different environment around conflict in the relationship. Gottman stresses the importance of repair when conflict has occurred. Using the antidotes effectively aids in the repair process.

Improve Repair Attempts With Marriage Counseling in Savannah, GA

The repair process involves any attempt to address the communication that is occurring, soothe one’s partner, or pair complaints/grievances with expressions of appreciation. Learning to repair effectively during and after conflict can promote connection and trust.

If you and your partner struggle with the Four Horsemen in your relationship and want help learning how to implement the antidotes and repair effectively, reach out to our practice today to schedule with a couples therapist. You can call us at 912.319.5552 or email us at [email protected]. 

Other Services Offered with Waters Edge Counseling

We know that you can experience a variety of mental health concerns unrelated to relationship concerns. This is why our team is happy to offer support with multiple mental health services including online counseling, clinical supervision, coping after a cancer diagnosis, and SCAD student counseling. We are also happy to offer therapy for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, teen substance abuse, and counseling for men. In addition, we also offer counseling for teens, child counseling, family counseling, Christian counseling, and grief counseling. Visit our blog to learn more.


Gottman, J.M. (1999). The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically-Based Marital Therapy. W. W. Norton & Company.