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How You Fight Matters

James and Paul have been together for five years. It hasn’t always been easy. They are very different in temperament, energy and interests. But they love each other. They enjoy what each of them brings to the relationship. The sex is terrific. They think they want to spend their lives together — except for one thing: They seem to find a reason to fight almost every day.  

“I can’t say anything he doesn’t like,” said James. “He immediately closes up and won’t talk to me. Sometimes he just storms off.”

“That’s because you are so damn critical,” says Paul. “You want me to be someone else. If I object, you roll your eyes like I’m being an idiot.”

Sometimes they are able to calm down and come to a compromise. More often, one or the other successfully changes the subject or leaves to cool off. Then they have a good rest of the day — until the next time when the routine starts all over again. What goes on?

All couples struggle when they move beyond the first blush of romance. All couples fight. It’s how they fight that determines whether the couple will grow closer or grow apart.

Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute has studied what makes and breaks couples for 40 years. He and his team have identified what they call the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, four styles of fighting that predict that a couple won’t stay together.  

These fighting styles are often learned in childhood by observing parents and/or peers who believe that winning (or at least not losing) is more important than getting along. Sometimes kids quite accidentally fall into such patterns and find that they “work”, at least in that it gets others off their backs. Regardless: By the time someone reaches early adulthood, these “skills” are often so well-practiced they are an automatic response to any conflict. Not having other ways to navigate differences, the person believes their response is only “natural” when they feel criticized, overwhelmed or inadequate. Sadly their ways of responding are so destructive that they almost guarantee that a relationship won’t last.

The Four Horsemen are not innate. They are learned. The good news is that anything learned can be unlearned. New skills can be put in place. Understanding that your relationship is at stake can be a powerful motivator.

Gottman’s Four Horsemen and What to Do Instead

Criticism: Criticism is a judgmental attack on the partner’s habits, ideas or person. It is a way of saying, “There is something wrong with you.” Criticism doesn’t invite thinking or conversation. It demands compliance. The partner often feels cornered. He may feel he has to either give in or dig in. Neither is helpful.  

Giving each other constructive feedback, on the other hand, doesn’t carry with it judgment and blame. It doesn’t call the other’s character or intentions into question. Instead, it is a sympathetic description of a behavior that is troublesome to the partner, perhaps followed by suggestions for changes that might better serve the person and the relationship. Constructive feedback invites dialogue. It often provides partners with an opportunity to gain insight into their own and each other’s perspectives about how to function in the world.

Defensiveness: Defensiveness is a response to a felt attack, whether or not the partner is actually attacking. Defensive behaviors include making excuses, justifying, rationalizing, blaming, or turning the tables (“I may be wrong, but you are wrong-er”). Such tactics may stop the conversation, but they only postpone the fight to another day.

Openness, even when feeling criticized, is what helps a couple grow. Partners listen respectfully to each other’s complaints or observations and ask for more information. They take responsibility for times when they have caused hurt — even if they didn’t mean to. They make a sincere effort to find ways to change behaviors that shut down communication or are troublesome to their partner.

Contempt: According to Gottman, contempt is the most serious indicator that a couple will separate. Contempt is the ultimate put down. It can be expressed by eye-rolling, sneering, sarcasm, statements of astonished disbelief or suggestions that the partner’s opinions or ideas are stupid, irrational, or uneducated.

Respect is the antidote. Couples show respect for each other’s person and ideas by listening empathetically, by asking clarifying questions, and by being open to making changes on the basis of what they learn from each other. When they can’t agree, the couple is able to agree to respectfully disagree and move on.

Stonewalling is when a partner leaves a conversation. Some people walk or storm out. Others “leave” by shutting down, refusing to listen, and/or mentally distancing. Sometimes it is a way to reassert superiority. Sometimes it is a way to avoid saying something the person knows will only make things worse. Often it is the only way the person knows how to protect him or herself when feeling emotionally overwhelmed or blamed.

Staying present, physically, mentally, and emotionally during conflict is what ensures that a relationship will last. The partners learn how to tolerate differences of opinion and to monitor their own tendency to get upset. If necessary, they will ask for a break but they always come back to the conversation until understanding can be reached.

When they first came into therapy, James and Paul both relied on Horsemen when they disagreed with each other about things that mattered. James was an expert at criticism and contempt. Paul’s first move was often defensiveness, followed quickly by stonewalling. The result? Each fight chipped away at their love and respect for each other.

Change hasn’t been easy but they are committed to each other and to doing the hard work that changing their fighting styles requires. They will always have their fights. Couples always do. But therapy has helped them recognize it when the Horsemen show up and to turn to the antidotes instead. The result has been much less negative drama and a deeper and more enduring love.

Related article: 10 Rules for Friendly Fighting

How You Fight Matters


Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart. Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.


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APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). How You Fight Matters. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 20, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-you-fight-matters/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.