How Can Couples Best Manage An Argument?

The Four Horsemen

Often, skills learned and practiced in couple therapy seem near-impossible to perform when outside the therapy room. As two people ramp up in argument or disagreement, many factors have the potential of dictating whether or not the argument will be a healthy agree-to-disagree or an unhealthy explosive fight. A well-known relationship expert, coined these factors The Four Horsemen. These factors have more to do with how conflicts is managed as opposed to how much conflict there is in a relationship.

couples learn to manage arguments



Dr. Gottman explains that a criticism “attacks the character of the person” while a complaint “focuses on a specific behavior”. The key factor that differentiates a criticism from a complaint is blame. If blame is non-existent and the person making the complaint expresses a specific needs based off the complaint, there is a high likelihood that the complaint will not put the other person on the defensive.



Becoming defensive signifies that one person in the argument or disagreement is attempting to protect themselves from the other person’s “perceived attack”. Defensiveness strays the couple off the path towards conflict resolution and can easily result in both people becoming defensive resulting in no resolution and a new “instance” for both people to bring up during a future potentially unhealthy argument. Dr. Gottman states the best remedy to prevent defensiveness is to accept responsibility, even if for the slightest part of the conflict.



Dr. Gottman states that contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce. When one person in a couple is speaking to the other person from a “relative position superiority”, it demonstrates a lack of appreciation and respect for the other person. Taking the time to learning and admire passions and interests of your partner can bring on a newly found appreciation for who your partner is as an individual, leading to a more fulfilling and joyful relationship.



Stonewalling is a term Dr. Gottman uses often to describe a person who is no longer present in conflict and has withdrawn from the interaction often leading to unhealthy thoughts as to why conflict resolution is so difficult within the relationship. The recommendation, as per Dr. Gottman’s extensive research on the matter, is for the person stonewalling to “self-soothe”; trying to read something, going for a walk, taking a shower, etc.

If any of these “Four Horsemen” exist in your relationship, a couple therapist is highly recommended to help you and your partner learn how to appropriately diffuse and prevent unhealthy arguments from repeating themselves. Conflict, even if frequent, is normal. How well a couple manages conflict is a crucial and often accurate indicator as to how whether or not the couple will feel happy and satisfied within their relationship or marriage.