The Four Horsemen of Irresolvable Conflict

 In Articles, Conflict

The Four Horseman of Irresolvable Conflict in Marriage Conversation:

We speak of conflict as a golden road to intimate connection. It can also be the catalyst for ‘irreconcilable differences.’ Conflict is a natural consequence of individuals growing and changing. Conflict is our noticing that something’s different, something’s not quite ‘right,’ something’s changed. If we think that that something is in our partner, and if we believe that it’s a change in their love that is causing the something – then a series of conversations is going to take place leading to conflict. Conflict is the noticing of the changes we believe are happening and those changes are out of our control.

So the anxiety of uncertainty drives conflict, fuels its energy and creates the aura of fear typically present within conflict. It all starts with an assumption which stated simply says ‘something’s wrong here and it’s your fault.’ From there it quickly moves into a blame game in which each partner becomes a kind of attorney – for the defense and for the prosecution. Frequently these switch back and forth without the partners noticing.

This courtroom drama requires the gathering of evidence, the presentation of a ‘case,’ a judge, sometimes extended family and friends will volunteer to act as jury and inevitably the finding of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ with its attendant sentencing.

A psychologist/ researcher in Seattle, John Gottman, laid out a sequence in conflict which inevitably ends in relationship disaster. He called it ‘the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.’ Here is a brief summary of that model.

When couples criticize each other there’s a natural consequence, defensiveness. So we could say it this way:

Criticism drives 
Defensiveness as it builds gathers momentum turning into 
Once stonewalled, it’s not a big step to 

Notice there’s a cascading effect:

Criticism drives
Defensiveness which produces
Stonewalling. A natural consequence of stonewalling is
Contempt. Once contempt is present the relationship pretty much is terminal.

Is there an alternative to this deadly process? Next week we’ll look at how couples ‘start fresh’ with a new awareness around conflict, invitation to intimate connecting and a re discovery of the love that got it all going in the first place.


Stephen W. Frueh PhD is a coach, consultant, writer and speaker. He can be contacted at or 805 338 4286

This article may be reproduced with my full permission, at will. All I ask is that you credit the source – me.

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