Communication Breakdown: When the Fights Don’t Resolve

Many of the couples I see come into my office after a doozy of a fight – one of those fights that started as a prickle of irritation, morphed into a Ping-Pong match of one-upmanship, and culminated in an all-encompassing torrent of disagreement about at least 12 unrelated topics. It can feel like these kinds of fights stand between you and your partner like a brick wall.

So here’s the bad news: there’s probably no way to get it so you guys don’t ever fight. You’re different people, and life happens – the communication will get rocky sometimes. But the good news is, it doesn’t have to feel so bad when you do fight.

John Gottman is a couples therapy researcher who was one of the first to identify the exact communication breakdowns that lead to one of those unresolved fights. He called them (appropriately, I think) the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

So here they are, the Four Horsemen. See if any of these sound familiar from your most recent fights and disagreeements:

Criticism: this horseman happens when instead of making a specific complaint, like, “you haven’t taken out the garbage yet, do you mind doing that now,” you blow an issue up into a condemnation of your partner’s personality. It usually includes the words, “you always…” or, “you never…” For example: “How many times do I have to ask you to do something? You never listen to me. It’s like it goes in one ear and out the other with you.”

Defensiveness: this horseman typically follows criticism, and turns us all into attorneys making a closing argument at the end of a high-profile trial. We’re capable of launching the most eloquently-worded, logical defenses of ourselves over even the tiniest of subjects, convinced that if we just argue our point well enough, our partner will see it our way and back down. For example: “What are you talking about? Maybe I haven’t taken the garbage out yet, but who picked up the kids from school every day this week? Who was it who paid all the bills over the weekend? I can list all the chores I’ve done this week if you’d like to compare.” Defensiveness is the reason that a fight can start over a topic like who takes out the garbage, and then cover things like childcare, finances, who pays for dinner, the house cleanliness, and what was said at last year’s family holiday get-together – all in under 10 minutes.

Stonewalling: this horseman effectively shuts a conversation down, but leaves a fight completely unresolved. One partner typically gets overwhelmed or flooded with emotion, and can’t continue. But instead of just saying, “I’m overwhelmed and I need a break,” that partner finds some way to check out – leaving the other partner indignant and angrier than ever. Maybe the stonewalling partner picks up their phone and starts scrolling through Facebook, or says something like, “well, I’m going to just go sleep in the guest room.” Maybe the stonewalling partner storms out of the house. While taking a break is a great idea during a fight, stonewalling is a communication breakdown that leaves one partner fuming.

Contempt: well, this horseman takes the cake in a fight. This is the one that will take that fight to the next level, every time. Contempt takes many forms, such as an eye-roll, a shaming word choice like “here we go again,” a voice tone that drips with sarcasm, or those kind of gotcha questions, like, “well let me ask you this – were you or weren’t you just watching TV for a whole hour after I asked you to take out the garbage?” This horseman is such a game-changer in a fight because there’s nothing quite like your partner showing you that he or she thinks you’re ridiculous. It just begs for some kind of equal retaliation.

So maybe you’ve recognized a few of these from your own fights, and that’s okay. They’re extremely common – and they don’t mean that your relationship is doomed. They happen particularly during times when the friendship is rocky.

You might try a course of Gottman-method therapy to see if you can work on your communication with a guide in the room to help you. Sometimes it takes only a few sessions to identify and eliminate these verbal weapons in your fights, and sometimes there’s some more extensive work that can be done to increase your closeness and improve the friendship before these horsemen can be truly eradicated.

But here’s a quick experiment to get you started on eliminating the horsemen from your fights today: start by noticing when you use the horsemen. Catch yourself on it in front of your partner. Apologize for it.

It’s important to start by catching your horsemen, even if your partner uses five of them for every one you use, because catching your partner on his or her horsemen is guaranteed to start a fight every time. But the self-catch method serves to stop that fight in its tracks in a good way, and help you guys get that discussion back on track.