The first three minutes of a conflict have a direct relationship with the outcome of that conflict in particular, and the future success of that relationship in general (Schwartz- Gottman & Gottman, 2015). It can be very challenging to get our point across while also not becoming overly activated to the point where we shut down or start throwing metaphorically punches at the other person. This can be even more of a daunting task during an emotionally charged situation. Below are what Schwartz Gottman & Gottman refer to as the “Four Horseman of Relationship Apocalypse,” which can lead to resentment, fractured communication and feeling disconnected from your partner. The first two can be viewed as figurative “weapons” to put down our partner while the last two can be seen as symbolic “shields” to protect ourselves during an argument. 

1. Criticism

Criticism occurs when we blame a relationship problem on a trait of a particular partner. This only leads to resentment and can get in the way of clearly explaining what we want from our partner. 

2. Contempt

Contempt can manifest as blame, putdowns or name-calling. Aside from belittling being far outside the realm of a healthy relationship, contempt conveys mocking or superiority and actually impacts the immune system of the listener (Schwartz Gottman & Gottman, 2015). It is the most corrosive of the Four Horsemen and can be verbal or non-verbal in the form of an eye-roll or smirk. 

3. Defensiveness

Defensiveness can be defined as an attempt at self-protection through innocent victimhood or righteous indignation to ward off a perceived “attack”. Defensiveness is different from criticism in that defensiveness is a “counter-attack” to a complaint. This is the most difficult of the four horseman to overcome because it prevents the listener from hearing the speaker’s attempt for a bid for affection by hyper focusing on their partner’s disapproval. In this way, we wind up getting in our way when we are defensive because we only hear disrespect rather than our partner’s desire for connection. The antidote to defensiveness is taking responsibility. Much to our chagrin, taking responsibility for part of the problem is a requirement to addressing an issue and enhancing our connection to our partner. 

4. Stone-walling

Stone-walling is the metaphorical shield we use when we shut down by not reacting at all. When this happens we check out of the conversation and are no longer able to hear what our partner is telling us. During an argument, our physiological “Fight, Flight or Freeze” response system is active and unless we learn to manage our own and respect the stress level of the other person, we can create a recipe for disaster. This is why taking breaks can be very effective when a conflict gets too heated. When we recognize that we are listening to respond rather than listening to understand or have an increased heart rate, we should assess if it’s time to time a few moments to decompress with the understanding that both parties will return to the conversation at a mutually agreed upon time. 

If any of these elements sounds like communication patterns in your relationship, working with a therapist to replace the Four Horsemen with Conflict Management Skills can greatly improve communication and connection with your partner. Together we can unveil each individual’s bids for attention in each argument so each party can hear and address the other’s desire to enhance their connection and support for one another. 

Be well, 

Marissa Ahern, LMSW 

Relationships are bonds formed on understanding, fondness and admiration, mutual support, trust and commitment. Sometimes we meet people who we care about but later learn this person may not be a good partner. Here are some dating red flags that can serve as warning signs to be cautious about proceeding into a relationship and if any of these sound familiar, it may be helpful to address these issues right away, preferably with a counselor. 

  1. Gets very serious very quickly

- While this may seem romantic or as though a partner believes you are “the one,” it can be a sign that a partner is controlling. Most abusers come on very sweet and charming in the beginning. This leads into the “Honeymoon Phase” of an unsafe relationship where there is a lot of love and care before the “Tension Phase,” which involves many arguments, put downs and feeling bad about yourself. The “Tension Phase” may even escalate to the “Blow Up Phase” in unhealthy relationships where abuse becomes more extreme. If you are dating someone who you feel is becoming very serious very quickly, it may be helpful to evaluate how much about you this person seems to know and appreciate before proceeding further. 

  1. Is extremely jealous

- Relationships are built on trust and require time to build this confidence. This is why partners bond over shared values and honor each other’s boundaries. If trust is not secured in your relationship and your partner wants to isolate you from your friends, work, or family, this may be a sign that your foundation is not solid. In your relationship there should be a balance between “me”, “you” and “us” which allows each individuals to have a strong sense of self inside and outside the relationship. A relationship without this balance can cause jealousy and isolation to define the bond rather than respect, trust and understanding.

  1. Attempts to control what you do, what you wear and who you see

- Loving relationships are about trust and collaboration and a relationship cannot have these themes if one partner is seeking to control and/or make decisions for the other. 

  1. Mistreats others

- Someone who struggles to see other points of view or negotiate with other people to the point of maltreatment is likely unable to collaborate with their partner and meet their partner halfway to achieve mutual goals.

  1. Blames other people for their own misbehavior or shortcomings

- We are not perfect beings and a partner who struggles to acknowledge areas where they could improve or have made a mistake are unlikely to atone for their missteps in your relationship. This means that the partner who refuses to own their mistakes will push accountability onto other people, rarely apologize or modify their behavior to ensure their partner feels heard and understood. 

  1. Abuses drugs/alcohol

- A partner who struggles with substances may have difficulty managing their emotions or may rely on the availability and accessibility of their substance of choice to cope with their emotions. This may serve as a barrier to maintaining clear communication, trust and/or mutual support. 

  1. Has unrealistic expectations

- A loving partner accepts us for who we are and encourages us to grow and meet our goals. Someone who expects their partner to be perfect is likely to be demanding and unable to recognize that the reality that their partner has limitations, as all people do. If someone expects their partner to be infallible, they may respond extremely when their partner does not meet their expectations. 

  1. Is overly sensitive or acts “hurt” when they do not get their way

- In order to have healthy communication within  our relationships, we expect our partners to be able to negotiate so conflict can be resolved with both parties feeling heard and appreciated. Similar to someone blaming others for their mistakes, someone who is unable to tolerate disagreements struggles to see other points of view or may not value their partner’s thoughts and opinions. 

  1.  Has mistreated a former partner in the past

- The only people responsible for maltreatment is the person who committed it. We are all entitled to feel safe and secure with our partners regardless of the situation. Someone who has mistreated a former partner is unlikely to provide the safety and security needed for a meaningful relationship without addressing these issues with a trained counselor. 

  1.  Is threatening or intimidating, even if they are not “serious”

- We cannot simultaneously feel safe and threatened. Any relationship that involves threats or intimidation cannot be a loving relationship because it does not have security.  

  1. Calls you names, puts you down or curses at you

- We all deserve respect, especially from our loved ones. Someone who puts us down, calls us names or curses at us does not respect us. Lack of respect is one of those dating red flags that can have us feeling unsafe, unheard and unseen.

  1. Is extremely moody and switches from being very nice to exploding into anger

- There needs to be a strong foundation of stability in any meaningful, lasting relationship. This allows us to feel safe and protected when we are with our partner and enhances our sense of trust and attachment to them overtime. Someone who ricochets from extremely happy to extremely angry does not possess the skillset to regulate themselves and cannot build this foundation of security with us. For someone to be able to withstand the ups and downs of life alongside us as our partner, they must be able to weather the storm with us and tolerate difficult emotions so they can support us when we need them. This is part of the natural give and take of a true relationship. If everything is dependent on one partner’s mood, this individual cannot truly “give” when their partner needs support. 

  1. Believes that one partner is inferior and expects their partner to obey them

- Trust and collaboration require an equal playing field and this is impossible if there is an uneven power dynamic within the relationship where one person seeks to dominate the other. Uneven power dynamic is certainly one of the key dating red flags.

  1. Holds partner against their will to keep them from walking away or leaving the room

- During a confrontation, some people feel they need to take some space to calm down before proceeding to resolve the conflict while others want to resolve the conflict in the moment. It’s important to have an understanding of you and your partner’s conflict resolution styles so you can work together to resolve arguments. If our partners will not allow us to take time to cool off or to remove ourselves if we feel unsafe, this tells us that they do not value our feelings or needs in the relationship.

Forming lasting bonds enhance our feeling of connectedness and understanding. Cultivating these bonds takes time, trust, security and admiration. They can also allow us to experience love and demonstrate healthy relationships for those around us, especially our children. If you feel unsupported in your relationship or noticed you have experienced some dating red flags, give our office a call to enhance your relationship’s foundation so all parties feel valued, respected and fulfilled. 

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