Most couples who fight in an unhealthy manner have a common pattern in their arguments. One person says something critical which is responded to with contempt and resentment. This incites defensiveness in the original partner who continues to attack causing the second partner to mentally check out of the conversation. This pattern, known as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, can become a rigid and regular method of communicating which decreases intimacy and damages a relationship.
To strengthen communication and ultimately your partnership, it is essential to break this perpetual cycle. Even if you find yourself going down this path, it does not mean that the conversation is doomed and can only escalate further. Here are essential things that both you and your partner can do even in the middle of a fight to prevent it from becoming uglier and more unhealthy than it already might be:
1. Choose a good time to talk. Many times if your partner has hurt you or upset you to your core, you are already having the argument in your head before you’ve told your partner how you feel. Calm yourself down and make sure that you are not going to begin the conversation with criticism. The more upset you are the more likely the conversation will begin on the wrong foot. If you are not calm, do not bring up your concerns with your partner. Also, do not choose a time to talk if you know your partner is stressed or tired to ensure that they are at their best to listen to you.
2. Use “I” statements. If you find yourself criticizing, stop the conversation immediately and reword what you said. Your partner is more likely to forgive the initial criticism if he/she sees that you are trying to communicate in a more productive manner. For example, if you initially said, “You never spend time with my family” it is very likely your partner is going to respond with a resentful comment as a result of your criticism. Whether your partner stays quiet or acts contemptuously toward you, call a time out and start over. Say something more inline with how you are feeling such as, “It upsets me that I spend time with my family alone instead with you also there.”
3. Share how that made you feel. Most people, when criticized, feel that their only resort is to attack their partner back. However, by doing that, you are not contributing to a productive conversation, but instead focusing on self-preservation. This places you and your partner on opposing teams with different goals instead of on the same team trying to resolve a common problem. Even if you accidentally let slip your response in contempt, stop the conversation immediately. For example if you said sarcastically, “I never spend time with your family. When I was there for lunch last weekend, I actually sent a body double. That wasn’t me” expect your partner to have a very negative reaction. As soon as you can, stop the conversation and ask to start over. Express to your partner what you are feeling that caused you to say something sarcastically. Common feelings that incite contempt include feeling as if your partner is being unfair, resentful because you are not appreciated, angry or frustrated.
4. Take a breath. Contemptuous remarks are difficult to hear and can press numerous buttons that make you want to hurt your partner further for how much they have hurt you. While it may feel in the moment that saying something biting or trying to prove your point would feel better, it is actually damaging to your conversation and your relationship in the long run. If you feel defensive, do not respond to your partner but instead take a breath. The break will allow your partner to re-say anything they feel might not have come out the right way and/or will give you an opportunity to prevent the argument from escalating. If you don’t trust yourself to stop talking, walk away for a few minutes.
5. Put away your ego. Winning an argument or proving that you are right should never be the goal of a conversation. If it is, stop talking to each other immediately and take time to figure out why it is more important that you are right than mutually agreeing up on a solution to the problem at hand. If you feel like you have won an argument, it is almost certain that you have lost connection between you and your partner. This damage takes significantly longer to repair than it takes to cause it.
6. Help your partner succeed. If you are talking to each other about a complaint, it is most likely because both of you would like to see your relationship improve. Both of you will make mistakes during the argument. Instead of firing back a retort or trying to protect yourself from further hurt, stop the conversation and ask your partner to repeat in different words what they are trying to say. It will convey a sense of mutual respect and interest in improving your situation.
Breaking the cycle of the four horsemen takes significant energy, time and practice; do not expect it to change over night. As long as you and your partner are committed to changing the way you disagree, slowly you will begin to communicate in a healthier manner. For more specific changes that you and your partner can make, consider consulting a marriage counselor who can identify your unique communication troubles and help teach you how to undo them.
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