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When you are in a relationship, you and your partner are never going to agree on everything. It would be unreasonable to expect to get along all the time. Disagreements and frustration are all a part of a healthy relationship, but how you both handle arguments is important. Continue reading to learn more about how to fight in your relationship in a healthy way.

Psychologist John Gottman identified four communication habits that mark unhealthy fighting in a relationship. He coined them as “The Four Horsemen” as an homage to the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.

The First Horseman: Criticism

This is often confused for voicing a complaint to your partner. Identifying issues and communicating with your partner is exactly what you should be doing in a healthy relationship. The key is to keep the issue related to the specific instance and feelings rather than your partner themselves.


Compliant: “I felt like I wasn’t a priority when you canceled our plans last night.”

Criticism: “You don’t prioritize our relationship. You always cancel our plans!”

How to Avoid Criticism

To avoid using criticism when fighting with your partner, try using a gentle start-up. Use “I” statements and express a positive need. This keeps the conversation about how the situation makes you feel, rather than knocking down your partner.

An example of an “I” statement is:

“I feel unheard when you interrupt me. Can we please take turns?”


“You always cut me off! You never listen to me!”

Using “I” statements helps you communicate a need to your partner and gives them the opportunity to step up and meet that need rather than shame them for not previously meeting it.

The Second Horseman: Contempt

Contempt refers to times when the intent and impact of your communication is mean. When your communication involves disrespect, sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, or mimicking, you are using contempt. The target is to belittle your partner to make them feel worthless. These statements are meant to establish moral superiority over your partner.


“You think you’re overworked? I have been putting in extra hours all week and doing all the chores? What have you been doing? Sitting at home doing nothing?”

How to Avoid Contempt

To avoid contempt, you need to build a culture of appreciation for one another. Regularly expressing appreciation and gratitude toward one another improves your outlook in your relationship. It frames your relationship and your partner in a positive light and allows you to remember the good things, even when you are mad.

You can even express gratitude when bringing up an issue you would like to address. Acknowledging effort or their situation in your statement softens the blow and keeps lines of communication open.


“I know you are tired when you get home from work, but could we please spend some quality time together this evening? It would mean a lot to me.”

Third Horseman: Defensiveness

Defensiveness is the response to criticism. It is normal to become defensive at times, but it prevents the conversation from being productive and typically escalates the argument. When you refuse to take responsibility, it will create frustration.


Criticism: “You forgot to take out the trash. You weren’t listening to me when I was speaking to you this morning.”

Defensive response: “I was getting ready for work. You should have reminded me!”

How to Avoid Defensiveness

Taking responsibility is the best way to avoid becoming defensive. Defensiveness is a way to deflect blame, but if you can own when your actions played a role in the situation, you break down that barrier.


“You’re right, I forgot in my rush this morning. Thank you for reminding me. I can take it out now.”

Fourth Horseman: Stonewalling

Stonewalling is the response to contempt. It is characterized by the listener shutting down and ceasing to participate in the conversation. Acting busy, avoiding eye-contact and giving short responses can all be signs of stone-walling.

How to Avoid Stonewalling

Self-soothing is a way to avoid stonewalling in an argument. This may mean taking a break from the conversation to calm down and sort out your thoughts. If you feel your heart rate increase or the conversation begins to be too much for you, ask your partner to take a time-out.


“I am feeling really worked up and I want to be able to have a calm constructive conversation about this. Can we take a break for 15 minutes so we can both calm down?”

Long story short, fighting can be healthy if you are aware of how you are communicating during an argument. There is no expectation to be perfect, but if you can strive to practice healthy fighting, you and your partner can create a safe and productive space to address issues and improve your relationship.

If you are interested in learning more about healthy relationships, contact First Care Clinic today!

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