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Marital problems are inevitable, but the way you handle the conflict can make a difference in the longevity of your relationship.

Written by Coralie McEachron

In the 1990’s, couple’s researcher John Gottman developed a unique claim to fame: he predicted with 94% accuracy from his research whether or not couples who participated in his Love Lab were headed for divorce. The patterns he identified have the potential to damage our relationships, but they also have the ability to change them. While these four patterns of behavior can signal relationship distress, they can also be improved upon over time, which allows greater safety and connection in the relationship.  

CRITICISM

Criticism goes beyond any single event of what a partner did wrong and instead attacks a person’s character. Criticism can often be paired with a harsh start-up, which may include accusatory language, abruptness, anger, or a harsh tone. 

What it sounds like: “You never pick up after yourself and always leave the house a mess!”            

The solution: Speak from your own perspective with an ‘I’ statement. Describe what is happening without judgment and talk clearly about what you need in positive terms. 

What to say instead: “I feel overwhelmed when I walk in and see dishes on the counter. I would love to see if we could tackle this together.”       

CONTEMPT

Contempt can stew from having persistent negative thoughts of our partner over time, and can often overshadow their positive qualities. It positions one partner as morally superior and can leave the other feeling demeaned, humiliated, or worthless. Contempt resembles meanness and may include disgust, disrespect, ridicule, name-calling, sarcasm, or cynicism.  

What it sounds like: “You taught all day during the school year but somehow manage to drop the ball at home during the summer. Why are you so incompetent?” 

The solution: Build a culture of appreciation through regularly expressing care and affection. Experts have found that a ratio of 5:1 for positive to negative interactions is important in providing a buffer from negativity and keeping the relationship strong in hard times.  

What to say instead: “I appreciate how hard you have worked throughout the year. However, during summer, some of the things we talk about get dropped. Can we figure out a way for some of these to happen this week?” 

DEFENSIVENESS

Sometimes defensiveness can be a way of maintaining self-protection. However, saying the problem is not on us can put the blame on our partner, which often escalates the conflict.  

What it sounds like: “It’s not my fault we keep going over budget because of vet bills. You’re the one who wanted a pet, but didn’t set aside money for times like this.” 

The solution: Take responsibility for whatever role you may have play in this problem. This can diffuse the situation. 

What to say instead: “I know it’s been stressful with all the vet bills, and we’re in it together. Can we make a plan to figure out how we can feel more prepared?” 

STONEWALLING

Stonewalling can involve physically withdrawing from the conflict, but may also appear as a partner acting busy or tuning out. This escape serves as self-protection or an attempt to prevent further escalation – especially if the partner withdrawing experiences emotional flooding. Research shows that many who choose to withdraw show physiological distress.  

The solution: Physiological self-soothing can make a huge difference. Slow, deep breaths, going outside, or going to a different environment can help, particularly when the other partner knows you will return when able.  

What to say instead: “I am starting to feel overwhelmed and too angry to talk about this. Can we take a break and come back to it afterwards? I really want to be present with you and can do that better after I calm down.” 

Sometimes these shifts in our conversations can be game-changers. However, one person making changes may not prevent the interaction from going awry. As relationships involve two or more people, we cannot control how the other person responds, but this should especially be emphasized for relationships with issues of abuse, power, or control. If a relationship feels emotionally safe and is one that you want to invest in, consider using these suggestions to make am empowered choice. If more support is needed, consider workbooks, a couple’s retreat, couple’s therapy, or individual therapy if these options aren’t feasible.  

If you feel unsafe, please reach out to 988 or a domestic violence hotline.