The ‘Four Cs’ of Relationship Conflict That May Predict Divorce

Rear view distance photo of couple holding hands leaning apart while running through sand on beachMarriage symbolizes the beginning of a (hopefully) lifelong commitment, so it makes sense couples tend to spend a lot of time and energy preparing for this milestone. Yet, while many engaged couples take their time researching the dos and don’ts of diamond buying, some do not spend enough time preparing for the inevitable difficult times they will experience while married.

Understanding how to better manage conflict is important not only for the well-being of a relationship, but also for each partner’s physical health. Unfortunately, couples often neglect to consider the “Four Cs” of conflict that are also predictors of divorce. Unlike the four Cs of diamonds (carat weight, cut, color, clarity), the “Four Cs” in this article are an adaptation of John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”—a theory that has enabled Dr. Gottman to predict divorce with about 91% accuracy.

1. Criticism (Attacking Your Partner’s Character)

When we make a complaint, offer a suggestion, or simply make a request, it is important to be conscious of how we let our partners know what is bothering us or what we need them to do differently. Using a harsh approach or cutting words, versus owning our reactions and feelings and stating what we need, can make all the difference in how our partners respond.

Let’s say, for example, your partner is running late to an important dinner and you are feeling frustrated and maybe even disrespected. It would be easy to say something like, “You’re never on time. Why are you so inconsiderate?” While frustration is understandable, it is not likely you will receive a warm, apologetic response. Using absolute terms such as “always” and “never” tends to imply an attack on the other’s character rather than being specific to the situation.

This is the hallmark difference between a complaint and a criticism. Using language that feels like an attack rarely yields a pleasant or desired response.

2. Counterattack (Defensiveness)

It is an almost innately human response to counter a critical remark with some effort to defend ourselves. When someone shoots a verbal arrow at us, it seems intuitive to put up a shield. However, this response typically only perpetuates the cycle of conflict because it sends the underlying message the other person is the problem, not us. Thus, our partners may respond to our defensiveness with more criticism—or worse.

3. Contempt (the Best Predictor of Divorce)

Contempt refers to one partner’s attempts to appear superior to the other. It can include name-calling (“you are such an idiot!”), using humor in a hostile manner, sarcasm, mocking, and eye-rolling. When contempt becomes present in conflict, it is typically the result of deeply held negative feelings about the other that perhaps have not been expressed or acknowledged and addressed. The inherent message is one of disgust and discontent.

Contempt acts as a corrosive agent in relationships. A relationship cannot survive if it is continuously riddled with contempt. Every effort should be made by both partners to make sure it does not become part of the conflict cycle. Contempt is also dangerous because research suggests not only is it a predictor of divorce, but more physical health issues as well.

4. Complete Withdrawal (Stonewalling)

What often follows the pattern of criticism-defensiveness-contempt is a response called flooding, which implies a level of physical arousal that typically derails any attempt to communicate effectively. Flooding, in short, is the body switching into fight-or-flight mode, in which the sympathetic nervous system ramps us up as if we are facing physical danger. This typically looks like a pounding heart, sweaty palms, and eventually leads to the fourth “C,” complete withdrawal (or, as Dr. Gottman terms it, stonewalling).

If you notice withdrawal in your relationship, it may be helpful to offer to take a break, allowing your partner the time and space to calm down in order to effectively communicate.

When we get to a point of feeling flooded, our physical symptoms take over and we become physically unable to respond to our partner in a way that promotes effective communication or de-escalation of the conflict. Our energy becomes directed toward self-soothing and self-protective withdrawal. However, this state of great distress often goes unnoticed by our partners. This is not a fault of them being oblivious; flooding and subsequent stonewalling (complete withdrawal) often appear as someone sitting quietly and calmly but disengaged. Because the distress goes unnoticed, it is easy for the non-flooded partner to interpret the withdrawal as malicious intent to end the conversation. This can result in continued attacks (criticism) or even contempt, causing further damage to the relationship.

If you notice withdrawal in your relationship, it may be helpful to offer to take a break, allowing your partner the time and space to calm down in order to effectively communicate.

How to Intervene Before the ‘Four Cs’ Take Hold

Here are some strategies to try in order to prevent the “Four Cs” from taking hold in your relationship:

  • Criticism: The best way to defend against using criticism is to use a gentle approach. Try being specific to the behavior and incident driving your frustration, and state how this makes you feel and what you need. Using the late-for-dinner example (see above), instead of the critical accusation of your partner “never being on time” and being “inconsiderate,” try “I’m feeling frustrated you were late tonight. This dinner is important to me. Next time, can you please try to leave work a few minutes earlier or let me know if you are running behind?”
  • Counterattack: The best way to respond to a critical comment and stave off a defensive response is to take a breath and try to take an exploratory stance of understanding what your partner needs. This will allow your partner to feel heard, which may result in a softer tone. If you find your partner continues to use critical words despite your taking the “palms open” approach, gently point out you are feeling criticized and ask if they can rephrase what they are saying.
  • Contempt: Avoiding contempt may come more naturally when both partners take time to develop a deeply held sense of fondness and admiration for one another, as well as comfort and safety in being able to work through the sticky areas that lead to complaints. Keep in mind, though, this is a more long-term solution. The short-term response is to take a break if you and your partner are in a conflict and you find yourself tempted to say hurtful words.
  • Complete withdrawal: Whenever you feel flooded, self-soothe as needed. It may be physically impossible to communicate effectively if flooding takes over. Let your partner know you need a break. If you are noticing a withdrawing partner, offer to revisit the conversation after a set amount of time.

If you and your partner are struggling with any of these issues, don’t wait until they cause problems in your marriage to seek help. Consult a licensed couples counselor in your area.

References:

  1. Gottman, J. M. (2014). What predicts divorce? The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. Psychology Press.
  2. Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Three Rivers Press.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Meredith Shirey, MS, LMFT, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 6 comments
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  • Tatum

    June 15th, 2017 at 8:39 AM

    Yep I could see how doing any one of these things for a period of time in any relationship would cause a rift between the two partners. I think that most of us forget that marriage isn’t anything that just happens, at least a good strong one anyway. It takes hard work and cultivation just like anything else that you want to keep new and fresh. I know that it isn’t always the best, but you know everything has its ups and downs and you simply have to work through it.

  • alexa

    June 17th, 2017 at 9:15 AM

    My husband always has to be right. No matter even if he is totally wrong, he can’t deal with that.

  • Ricky

    June 19th, 2017 at 11:05 AM

    Even though I know that it’s the wrong he to do I always completely shut down after any argument. That’s the only way that I can process things but truth be told it drives my wife crazy.

  • vett

    June 19th, 2017 at 2:13 PM

    None of us are perfect, I think that we can all cop to that. And I also suspect that all of us at some point have done things wrong in our relationships with significant others. You would have to be a martyr to have not ever done anything like that. The point here is though that you have to learn from your mistakes. Do you find yourself doing things that drive your partner crazy… and do you learn from that? Or do you continue to do them simply because you know that it bugs them?
    If you answered yes to the second part of that question, then you are too immature to be in a serious relationship at this time and you need to just let that other person go and find someone who is willing to work on the things that are important, and not those that are petty.

  • Theo

    June 23rd, 2017 at 1:07 PM

    I have often wondered how couples who seem to be so in love on their wedding days can one day become so unhappy with themselves and one another that the whole relationship falls completely apart?

  • stressedout

    June 25th, 2017 at 8:21 AM

    I think that there are those days when I am so overwhelmed with all of the things that I am responsible for and have to get done that I for some reason take that out on my husband and choose to take it all out on him instead of simply telling him how I feel. Many times I think that this turns into me being so critical of him even though I know that he is doing his best to keep us above water too. There are days when I feel like he is the safest one that I can take all of my frustrations out on but I also know that this is in the long run going to drive a huge wedge between us and hurt the underlying structure of our relationship.

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