Couples And Conflict In Relationships

Over time, every couple develops patterns in their interactions. Couples counselling can help you to indentify and interpret those unworkable patterns that cause recurring conflicts in your relationship.

Couples and Conflict in Relationships

In couples counselling, we can help you and your partner identify and use solutions that have worked for you before, but which you may have overlooked for your current problems.

Point of View

In addition, your therapist can show you how changing how you view things – your interpretation or point of view – can impact your relationship.

Changing your point of view can help to lift you out of a rut, and give you the power to make a difference in how you are currently viewing your partner and your relationship. It can be extremely helpful in counselling to focus on actions as the keys to effective communication and change.

Dr. John Gottman, world renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, can predict with 96% accuracy whether a couple will survive the long haul or not – within the first three minutes of the couple having a conversation.

Beware the Four Horsemen

Gottman bases his predictions on four potentially destructive communication styles and coping mechanisms: (1) harsh startup, (2) the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, (3) flooding, and (4) body language.

The Four Horsemen are a metaphor depicting the end of times in the New Testament. They describe conquest, war, hunger, and death respectively. Dr. Gottman uses this metaphor to describe communication styles that can predict the end of a relationship.


The first horseman in a relationship is criticism. Criticising our partner is different to offering a critique or having a complaint. The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is about attacking our partner at the core. In effect, we are dismantling his or her whole being with criticism.

For example: “I was scared when you were running late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other” is a complaint. “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. I don’t believe you are that forgetful; you just don’t think about me” is a criticism.


The second horseman is contempt. When we communicate from this state, we may be mean, treating others with disrespect by using sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, and/or body language such as eye-rolling. Our partner feels despised and worthless. Contempt is toxic and cannot be replaced with anything. It must be eliminated.

Example: “I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do, when you come home from work, is to flop down on that sofa and become a couch potato. You are just about the sorriest excuse for a husband I can think of.”


The third horseman is defensiveness. This is an easy one to fall into. When we feel accused of something, we may tell our partner our excuse for doing what we did, thinking that s/he will back off. But the excuse just tells our partner that we haven’t considered anything he or she has said. Basically, by defending ourselves we are ignoring our partner.

Example: She: “Did you call Betty and Ralph to let them know that we are not coming tonight as you said this morning you would?”

He: “I was just too darn busy today. As a matter of fact you knew how busy my schedule was. Why didn’t you just do it?” He not only responds defensively but turns the table and makes it her fault. A non-defensive response would have been: “Oooops, I forgot. I should have asked you this morning to do it because I knew my day would be packed. Let me call them right now.”


The fourth horseman is stonewalling. When we stonewall, we avoid conflict either because we are unconscious of our own feelings, or because we are afraid. Rather than confronting the issue/s (usually they tend to accumulate) with our partner, we take evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, being busy or engaging in obsessive behaviors. We simply stop engaging in the business of relating to the other person.

In order to change the first two horsemen, criticism and contempt, the person who engages in them really needs individual counselling because the attack on another person’s worth usually stems from childhood wounds such as parental criticism, shaming, belittling or excessive demands.

Couple counselling can help when all four horsemen are active and alive in a relationship.

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