Conflict does not have to create distance between you and your spouse. In fact, conflict can be the very thing that creates moments of connection and intimacy if it’s done right. Communicating about your disagreements, hurts, needs, and desires is a natural part of any relationship. But how you do this is key.
Relationship expert and therapist Dr. John Gottman identifies these “Four Horsemen” of conflict in describing what will bring more hurt and destruction in these kinds of conversations. Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling will lead to escalation of an argument or ending it with resentment and hurt instead of resolution.
Criticism is more than just asking your partner to meet your need or asking for him or her to change some particular behavior. Criticism focuses on the person’s character or brings up complaints in a global way with phrases like “you always” or “you never.” Instead, state issues with affirmation and care, making it about a specific behavior that you want to address.
Contempt and defensivenessare common responses to criticism. When we respond with sarcasm, name-calling, blaming, or excuse-making we can escalate a conversation into an argument. Instead, respond with empathy and understanding, showing your partner that you heard them and understand how they feel, even if you don’t agree.
Stonewalling often comes when one partner wants to end the conflict. They cut off the argument by leaving, either physically or emotionally. While it may be appropriate to take a break when conversations become emotionally heated, make sure your partner knows that you plan to return to the conversation at a later time. This shows that you value issues that your partner finds to be important, even if you are too emotional to talk at that moment.
In contrast, we all need to feel that our disagreements, hurts, needs, and desires will be heard and responded to in our marriage and significant relationships. Dr. Sue Johnson, developer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, uses the acronym A.R.E. (Accessibility, Responsiveness, and Engagement) in identifying the means that will help these conversations lead to a deeper connection.
Accessibility means staying available to your partner and being willing to struggle through difficult emotions (without criticism, defensiveness, contempt, or stonewalling) even when you feel unsure or insecure.
Responsiveness is about sending clear signals to your partner that their needs, fears, desires, and emotions have an impact on you and offering the sensitive care and comfort that is needed.
Engagement is staying emotionally present and fully involved and attentive to your loved one. By looking in their eyes, touching their hand, asking questions to show interest, and giving empathy we stay engaged.
When we can respond to one another in ways that show how much we value each other’s thoughts and feelings instead of focusing on our own thoughts and feelings and thereby devaluing our partner’s, we can experience intimacy and connection through our most difficult conflicts.