Communication is the key to a successful relationship but communication becomes even more important during disagreements. No relationship is without those bumps and every couple fights at some point because they are two different people trying to come together on many important topics such as money, division of labor, sex, religion (religion and child rearing), kids, how to spend free time, vacations, and boundaries with people outside the relationship. Couples don't argue about these things once, they argue about them again, and again, and again. My husband and I have been married 15 years today (it's our anniversary!) and our top three would be money, kids, and division of labor.
The reason these kinds of topics cause couples to argue is because our beliefs about them are deeply rooted in our history, our childhood, our culture, and often our religious beliefs. These are often topics that can't be resolved, they can only be managed. The difference between couples who stay together and couples who don't is how they manage these arguments over the life of the relationship.
Dr. John Gottman did research with couples and discovered 4 communication patterns he calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that lead to unhappy marriages or to divorce. The Four Horsemen are: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling. Recognizing these negative patterns in your argument style and working to correct them will improve the health of your relationship and could even save you from divorce.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Criticism often occurs when our expectations for our partner are unmet, when we complain about what we didn't get, and when we blame our partner for not providing it. For example: "You always spend to much money! We are going broke because you can't pass up a sale."
Another way to handle this would be: "I am worried that we are spending more money every month than we are making. Can we sit down and work out a budget together?"
Criticism leads to defensiveness and an escalation of the argument, it never leads to a solution.
Defensiveness almost always occurs in response to a criticism. It usually involves defending ones own innocence and is followed by a counter attack. For example: "I only bought one dress, and it was to go to my Mother's birthday party. You're the one who is always buying new golf clubs."
Another way to handle this might be: "I did buy some new clothes this month. If we had a budget for clothes it would be easier to know when we can afford new things."
Accepting responsibility for even a small part of your partners concern can help them feel validated and turn an argument into a productive discussion.
Contempt is to take a position of moral superiority, to treat your partner as beneath consideration, to be condescending. An example might be: "I can see why you thought that was okay, your mom is ditz with money too. The apple didn't fall far from the tree."
An alternative to contempt is to describe your own feelings and your own needs, rather than your partners. For example: "I feel upset and frustrated about the state of our finances. I really need us to be on the same page about our budget."
It also helps to make an effort to identify positive things about your partner and give praise or show appreciation for them. For example: "I really appreciate how much you care about others and I know you go out of your way to show that."
Contempt is toxic to a relationship and is often destructive to the partner it is aimed at. Contempt is the mostly likely argument pattern to end in divorce.
Stonewalling occurs when one partner shuts down emotionally and/or physically. They stop making eye contact and stop responding to their partner. Stonewalling often occurs when one is overwhelmed with emotion (frustration, anger, anxiety) in response to the argument. Stonewalling can be dealt with by agreeing to take a 20 minute break before resuming the conversation and by practicing self-soothing techniques (deep breathing exercises are one example).
This short video by The Gottman Institute helps illustrate the Four Horsemen.
Wishing you the best,