Most people realize that high levels of conflict— loud, angry or bitter fighting— can be tremendously destructive not only to marriages and intimate relationships but can cause lasting harm to kids caught in the crossfire. Conflict takes a toll not only psychologically but also physically.

As painful as divorce can be for kids, what we know now is that the key element of break-ups that harm kids is excessive fighting and conflict— whether the family remains intact or not. On the flip side, simple disagreements and differences go hand in hand with any relationship, whether it be marital partners, parents and children, co-workers or siblings.

One of the crucial skills we must master in order to sustain close, long-term relationships is healthy communication. We need to be able to communicate not only positive feelings of love and appreciation, but also to talk through issues when we don’t see eye-to-eye.

The Elements of Healthy Conflict

Successful resolution of conflict happens when both parties talk and listen, taking turns at sharing. Rather than gearing up to defend one’s point of view, there’s an effort to understand more about what the other person feels, thinks and wants. Compromise is also an essential ingredient to build trust and intimacy.

Although difficult conversations may be heated, it’s hugely harmful when there’s name-calling, yelling, threatening or bullying. In other words, there’s a certain level of respect and self-control that’s maintained. When one or both parties gets overcome by strong emotions, the couple knows that it is usually wise to take a break to cool down, finding another time to resume the discussion when both parties are calmer. There are many resources (books, articles, videos) and how-to instructions with tools for healthy communication.

The Elements of Hurtful Conflict

In destructive conflict, all bets are off. Psychologist John Gottman’s land-breaking research on couples brought to light the negative aspects that can lead any discussion to the dark side. He aptly labeled these the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse because once they are predominant in a couple’s conflict, the likelihood of divorce dramatically rises.

Here are the four negative habits that every couple should watch out for:

  • Criticism:

This happens when we try to place the fault squarely on the other. We call it the “blame game.” Although the person doing the criticizing might think they are “helping” the other to see and fix a problem, in truth the complainer is describing negatives in their mate or even worse, generalizing about their whole character. Criticism is often accompanied by the words “always” and “never”.

Examples: “You’re always late!” “You only think about yourself and not about anyone else in this family.” “You’re such a prude.” “Why can’t you ever clean up after yourself?”

  • Defensiveness:

Most people become defensive when someone is critical. Their brains get activated almost as if they’re being attacked from by a hungry animal. It can look like giving lots of excuses for your behavior or it can look very aloof and indignant. It can quickly launch into counter-attack and criticism.

Examples: “I am NOT (fill in the blank)!” “I didn’t leave the kitchen that way—you did.” “I’m not the selfish one—look who’s talking.” “I can tell you all the things I did today for you and you are going to criticize me for being late!”

  • Contempt:

This tactic starts with criticism and send the same message but from a one-up, judgmental position. People roll their eyes and the upper lip rises a bit.

Examples: “I can’t even believe that you could be so dumb as to think that was a good movie…” “How could you possibly have worn those pants to school today–you look like a tramp.” “Too bad you don’t know how to be a good father or you would know what to do.”

  • Stonewalling:

This is what someone does who blatantly refuses to participate in the conversation. It’s often accompanied by arms folded and a lack of eye contact. It sends the message that the person has completely withdrawn emotionally and is not engaged.

Examples: “I am not going to talk to you about this.” “I’m out of here!” Or it is just giving someone the silent treatment or the cold shoulder.

More Tips for Prevention

  1. Don’t start talking about your conflict when you are hungry.

A new study conducted by Brad Bushman and colleagues actually measured levels of blood glucose in over 100 married couples and found that those people with lower levels, i.e. the hungry ones, were far more likely to express anger. This was true for both men and women and was more significant than the overall level of relationship satisfaction. Almost all of us are cranky and impatient when are tummies aren’t full.

  1. Don’t start talking when it is too late at night.

It is certainly tempting to talk late at night. The kids are finally in bed and you have some privacy. The problem is that most Americans are already chronically sleep-deprived, and tired people don’t think as clearly and certainly have less ability to listen patiently. The other downside of late night confrontations is that if the argument doesn’t go well, then one of you might spend the rest of the night tossing and turning or choosing to sleep somewhere else. 

  1. Don’t start talking when one or both of you is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

It’s hard enough to practice fair fighting when we have our wits about us. When you add substances to the mix (so to speak), all bets are off. Ask any police officer how he or she feels about confronting a suspect who’s been drinking… Although not everyone is a mean when they’re drunk, the risk of verbal and physical violence dramatically rises.

  1. Equally destructive is the inability to censor mean-spirited comments or to take a time-out when needed. Remember that anything really worth fighting about can wait for the clear light of day. Although it FEELS like we have to talk now, that very urgency is likely to tilt things toward the negative.

There’s an old saying in Alcoholics Anonymous that cautions against becoming too hungry, angry, lonely or tired. It reminds members to H.A.L.T. because of the risk of relapse with any of these factors. HALT! turns out to be good advice for all of us.

The next time you have something important to work out with your loved one, make a plan to talk when you can do so without interruption and when you can both arrive rested, centered, ready and anxious to compromise or at the very least, to learn something about your partner’s feelings. The health of your family depends on it.