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Couples and Conflict: Disagreeing Agreeably


Antidotes to "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse"

Relationship Busters

We've all heard the advice to end stalemates by "agreeing to disagree." The trouble with that approach is it literally ends with disagreement. You're right back where you started. Who wants that? I prefer to flip the order, so that the goal is disagreeing agreeably. In this scenario both members of the couple exit the argument in an emotional state of agreeableness. Sounds better, right? But, you may ask yourself, how do we accomplish that? The answer is a simple one, but applying it can be quite difficult.

First, it is important to understand exactly what causes disagreement. Relationship experts Drs. John and Julie Gottman have identified through decades of extensive research that couples gravitate toward a few basic tactics when it comes to arguing, The Gottmans call these the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse". They are Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling.

Once you identify which of the four horses you're riding, you can pull up on the reins and change directions. Destination: harmony. Let's take a look at each "horse" individually -- what they are and how to counter them.


This is when an individual reacts to a conflict by blaming their partner. "You never take out the garbage because you're lazy and inconsiderate." In this scenario, you are attacking your partner's character rather than addressing the issue. The downside to criticizing is that it often puts your partner on the defensive. Then you end up in a viscous circle of escalating hurt, disappointment and frustration. Nobody's needs get met and you grow further apart rather than closer together.

The antidote for criticism is focusing on exactly what's irking you and communicating what you would like to change. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is using "I" language: "I'm upset that the garbage wasn't taken out. I would really appreciate it if you would take care of that as we had agreed." When doing this it is equally important to do so with relaxed body language and a calm and nonjudgmental tone of voice. If you are speaking through a clenched jaw with your hands on your hips, what you are saying is eclipsed by the combative non-verbals. Body language trumps words. Its not just what you say, it's how you say it. Trite but true.


Let's say you're the one who didn't take out the garbage as had been mutually agreed upon, and your partner mentions it to you. If you find yourself explaining why, that's defensiveness. The issue morphs into a power play, both of you end up angry, resentful, fearful or ashamed, and the garbage remains in the house instead of at the curb. The best solution is to take responsibility. Here's what that sounds like: "I'm sorry. You're right. I didn't take out the garbage." Then you take out the garbage.

"But I had a perfectly good reason for not taking it out!" you say? To which your wiser self might reply, "Is this really worth an argument?" In other words, pick your battles. Be honest with yourself. That often means taking responsibility for your actions, even if you have a valid excuse for not following through. And later, when you're calm and reasonable, you can revisit the conflict and point out to your partner that you realize it is your responsibility, you forgot because you had a meeting and you were running late, and you have every intention of doing the deed. This approach softens your partner, because they will feel both heard and respected. You will have sidestepped an argument and both of you will feel better about each other for it. Bonus: You'll also feel better about yourself. It is empowering to take responsibility, even if that means admitting a wrong step. That's called integrity, which goes a heck of a lot further than foolish pride.


This is probably the bucking bronco of the bunch and the hardest to tame. That's because contempt isn't simply an emotional reaction to a given situation. Contempt is a deep-rooted attitude of scorn and disdain, usually accumulated over a period of time. Individuals express contempt with eye-rolling, sneers, mean-spirited humor, sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling and the like. Contempt in a relationship is the biggest predictor of divorce, so it must be stopped ASAP if a couple wants to stay coupled. Difficult, but do-able -- provided both individuals are motivated to take the time and make the effort.

The antidote to contempt requires creating what the Gottmans call a "culture of appreciation and respect." If there's contempt, then it's safe to say the contemptuous individual(s) developed finely tuned antennae that pick up on every little thing they believe their partner is doing wrong. And they're not afraid to let them know it.

Saving the relationship requires two non-negotiable policies:

First, banish eye-rolling, sneering, sarcasm, hostile humor, name-calling and cynicism.

Second, change the frequency of those finely tuned antennae to a station that picks up every good thing about the other person's character and behavior. Then communicate with a loving attitude what's been noticed. Rinse and repeat.


If you're a Chinese Emperor during the Ming Dynasty and you want to keep barbarians from invading, building a big stone wall is a great idea. In intimate relationships, not so much. The idea is to let your partner in so you can join forces. You're supposed to be on the same side, right?

In relationships, a partner is stonewalling when they withdraw from an interaction. It can be a passive-aggressive move. Think: Cold shoulder. Or it can be an unconscious reaction to a flood of unpleasant feelings that stops the person in their tracks. Think: deer in the headlights.

In any case, the antidote to stonewalling is physiological self soothing. Studies show that when we engage in conflict, our heart rates and blood pressure escalate, to the point that we literally cannot think clearly. The research also shows that taking a time-out of about 20 minutes to engage in a calming activity (listening to music, reading, deep breathing) is enough time for the body to recover and the rational mind to reboot. At that point, you're ready to revisit the conflict in a more productive way.

There you have it. Your relationship doesn't have to be trampled by stampeding Apocalyptic Horsemen each time the two of you have a conflict. Learn to recognize when you've saddled up, which horse you're riding, and which direction you truly want to go. Practice the techniques prescribed by the Gottmans, and you and your partner are much more likely to ride off into the sunset. Together. Masters of Relationship, rather than Disasters.

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