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  • Writer's pictureAbby Rosmarin


Sometimes arguments take a life of their own, but most between family members or couples have a familiar rhythm.

Watch this marital squabble between Sid Caesar and Nannette Fabray to Beethoven’s 5th and consider what looks familiar to you.

According to John Gottman, a psychologist known for his work on relationship analysis, anger exchanges themselves do not predict relationship breakup. Anger reciprocity, as we see in the video, is the most common response to a partner’s anger in both stable/happy and dissolving relationships. (That is not to say that reducing angry exchanges may have a beneficial effect for a variety of reasons, including the tendency that anger reciprocity can encourage escalation.)

While occasional conflict in a relationship is expected, some behaviors, if frequently and intensely employed can undermine relationship satisfaction. These are according to Gottman, the use of: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (dubbed the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse").

More specifically, criticism is blaming a relationship problem on personality flaws in you partner in extreme and absolute terms; contempt means combining criticism of your partner with descriptions of your own superiority and disgust of the other person; defensiveness is defending against your partner's criticism or contempt by either denying any responsibility or deflecting blame to the other person while ignoring his or her complaints; and stonewalling involves withdrawing or distancing (emotionally or physically) from the other person.

When people become especially on guard about the other's negativity, it often leads to resentment, feelings of neglect, and/or disrespect. It then becomes very difficult to employ more productive strategies, even if there is an aspiration to do so.

Conflict coaching, because of the dynamic involvement of a trained person outside the conflict sequence, can help people appraise and moderate their feelings and expressions as well as encourage the employment of constructive communication alternatives. Even if a person feels trapped, overwhelmed, or angry, a coach can help draft necessary communications with the other, facilitate conversations, and help problem solve.

With the Four Horsemen quieted, there can be the opportunity for de-escalation and more productive communication.

The squabble might shift to another tune. Take your pick.

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