How to Have Healthy Conflict   in Intimate Relationships

Posted By on Aug 23, 2013 |

Discovering How to Have Healthy Conflict in Intimate Relationships

advice for working through conflictHow conflict is handled is a predictor of the outcome of a relationship. Conflict itself, is healthy and if couples can be aware of what is going on emotionally during the conflict it is much easier to respond as opposed to reacting to the situation.

What we say to ourselves about the other person during the conflict will determine how we treat them.

If we see them as the enemy, being all bad and a threat to our safety, then we will be defensive and critical. If we see them as our friend and believing that we are loved, then we will be less defensive and critical and more open to hearing what they have to say. This is not always easy, because as the conflict escalates we can become very emotional and that makes it difficult to respond objectively. We start reacting to our beliefs about who we think the other person is.

Dr’s John and Julie Gottman have been studying couples in conflict for years and they have scientific information that can predict the failure or success of a relationship. They call it The “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. Through their observation of couples they have discovered that criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling are behaviors of dysfunctional relationship conflict.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling.

Criticism is the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes. Defensiveness is intending to defend or protect, or very anxious to challenge or avoid criticism. Contempt is the feeling that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn. Stonewalling is a refusal to communicate or cooperate. Gottman’s report that all of these behaviors indicate a “turning away” from your partner and the result is unhappy and unstable relationships.

If these kinds of behaviors demonstrate a “turning away” from our partner, then our goal is to learn behaviors that “turn us toward” our partner. It is important to start by creating an environment of safety and trust. Lowering our defensiveness and criticism prevents the conflict from escalating which leads to contempt and stonewalling. “Turning toward” your partner is demonstrated by asking questions so you can better understand their position. Seek to understand before seeking to be understood. Validate your partners feelings even though you may not agree. Once your partner feels validated, they are much more willing to listen to your position. Learn to compromise and find a win win solution to the conflict. You can be right or you can be happily married!

Learning to have conflict in a safe environment takes work. It is simple, but not easy. It is a process and takes time to master. The DNA of Relationships by Gary Smalley is an excellent book to help with good communication skills and creating a healthy environment. If you want to read more about Dr John and Julie Gottman’s work, go to

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Vickie Parker, LMFT
Online counseling