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John Gottman: Four Types of Conflict Resolution in Marriage

Dr. Yvette Stupart is a clinical counselor and educator. She gives insights on how to experience emotional health and relational well-being.

The balance between negative and positive interactions during conflicts can predict whether the marriage will last.

The balance between negative and positive interactions during conflicts can predict whether the marriage will last.

Understanding Interpersonal Conflicts

Interpersonal conflicts occur when there are differences between individuals. These include differences in people’s motives, goals, beliefs, opinions and behaviors. While there are always differences between two people in a relationship, a critical factor that causes conflict is when one person’s wishes or actions hinder those of the other person.

Miller and Perman (2008) point out that it is unlikely that couples can escape conflicts in their relationships, as they have different moods and preferences, and fulfilling one person’s goals could hinder the other. However, conflict is a dynamic process that could initiate change through growth instead of destroying relationships.

Couples' perceptions, thoughts, values, and feelings influence how they interpret conflict situations and can strongly shape the outcomes of conflicts. However, the three elements of conflict, issue, relationship, and emotion, must be dealt with if the conflict is to be resolved. The way that couples respond to interpersonal conflicts could either be constructive or destructive to their relationships.

John Gottman: Making a Marriage Work

The 5 to 1 Ratio in Marriage Conflicts

According to John Gottman, marriage relationship researcher, negative interactions are balanced by positive ones in stable marriages. The dynamics of the balance between negativity and positivity are what separate contented couples from discontented ones.

In stable marriages, there is a very specific ratio, 5 to 1, between the amount of positive feelings and interactions and negative interactions. In contrast, couples who are likely to divorce, have too little positive interactions to compensate for the for the rising negativity in their marriages.

According to Gottman (1994), positivity must outweigh negativity 5 to 1, whether couples have intense fights or avoid conflicts completely. There are successful adjustments in these marriages that keep the couples together. Low level of conflicts between couples does not necessarily indicate marital happiness. On the other hand, it seems the intensity of the argument between some couples brings out the true color in their marriages.

Four Types of Conflict Resolution

According to Gottman, there are four types of problem-solving approaches in marriages:

  • Volatile
  • Validating
  • Conflict-avoiding
  • Hostile

The first three approaches can lead to stable and enduring marriages. However, the fourth approach is likely to end in divorce.

Gottman explains how certain important qualities of each approach predict whether or not a marriage will end in divorce.

1. Volatile Couples

For volatile couples, conflicts erupt easily, and are fought on grand scale, but of course, making up is even greater! These couples have passionate disputes, and frequent and passionate arguments.

According to Gottman, while volatile fight openly, they argue with a lot of wit, display fondness for each other, and have a great time making up. It seems that their volcanic arguments are just a small part of their warm and loving relationship.

It appears that passion and fighting lead to better relationships which include making up, laughing, and affection. So despite the level of their argument, they still resolve their differences.

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Volatile couples see themselves as equals, and exhibit individuality and independence in their marriage. They are open with each other about their positive and negative feelings, and their marriages tend to be passionate and exciting.

Gottman’s research indicates that their frequent arguments are balanced out by their positive interactions such as touching, smiling, paying complements, and laughing, and so on. So these couples stick together for the long haul.

Volatile couples have frequent passionate arguments.

Volatile couples have frequent passionate arguments.

2. Validating Couples

Couples who are validators, fight more politely. They are calmer during conflicts, and behave like collaborators as they work through their problems. These couples often compromise, and seek to work out their problems steadily for mutually satisfying results. The mutual respect that they have for each other, limits the amount and level of their arguments.

The emphasis is on communication and compromise, so even if they have heated discussion, they validate each other. They do this by expressing empathy for, and understanding each other’s point of view. Very evident, is their display of care, calm, and self-control even when they discussing hot topics.

Validating couples try to persuade their partners and find a common ground in the end. During conflict, they let each other know they value their opinions, and see their emotions as legitimate. In disagreement, validating couples, let their partners know they still consider their feelings, even though they don’t necessarily agree with their position.

3. Conflict-Avoiding Couples

Conflict-avoiding couples rarely argue, and it seems that they avoid confrontation at all cost. When they discuss their conflicts they do so mildly and carefully, as they don’t feel that there is much to be gained from getting openly angry with each other.

These couples agree to disagree, and rarely confront their differences, which could end up in deadlocked discussions. According to Gottman, conflict-avoiding couples believe that their common ground and values are much greater than their differences, and this makes their differences insignificant or easy to accept.

These couples have an avoidant style of marriage, so rather than discussing a conflict with their partners, some spouses often try to fix the situation on their own, or hope that with the passage of time the problems will work themselves out.

Avoiders don't argues because they avoid confrontation.

Avoiders don't argues because they avoid confrontation.

4. Hostile Couples

Hostile couples argue often and hotly, and their arguments are caustic and harmful. Insults, putdowns, and sarcasms prevail when they argue. These couples fail to maintain the 5 to 1 ratio of positivity to negativity in their conflicts, and there is clearly more negative than positive in the relationships.

Hostile couples’ discussions are characterized by too much criticisms, contempt, defensiveness, and withdrawal. Their communication is unhealthy, they don’t listen to what each other is saying, and conflicts are dangerous to their relationships.

Some hostile couples try to actively address their disagreements, but this is usually ineffective. Others remain more detached, uninvolved, and critical of each other, with brief spurts of attack and defensiveness. These couples are meaner to each other than the other three types of couples..

Summary: How the Four types of Couples Deal With Conflicts in Marriage

There are more positives than negatives in the marriages of volatile, validating, and conflict-voiding couples. However, for hostile couples, there are more negatives than positives in their marriages.

VolatileValidatingConflict- AvoidingHostile

Conflict erupts passionately and are fought on a grand scale

Couples fight politely and are calmer

Couples avoid confrontation and minimize conflicts

Conflicts are laced with insults

Couples have a great time making up

Couples are collaborative in their approach

Couples think it is better to agree to disagree

Crticisms, contempt, defensivesness and stonewalling (the four horsemen) predominate

Couples are open with each other about their feelings (negative and positive)

Emphasis is on communication and compromise

Focus on what they have in common and their shared values

Unhealthy communication patterns; they don't listen to each other

Argue but resolves their differences; fights sprinkled with fondness and humor

Couples validate each other when they fight (empathetic, understanding)

Mininmize their differences; feel their problems will work themselves out

Couples are emotionally detached

In their interactions, there are more positives than negatives (5:1)

In their interactions, there are more positives than negatives (5:1)

In their interactions, there are more positives than negatives (5:1)

They fail to maintain the 5:1 ratio of positivity to negativity in their interactions

Eliminate the 4 Negative Patterns that Predict Divorce

What are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?

Gottman describes four primary toxic behaviors that contribute to couples feeling disconnected from each other. These are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling, and they are likely to lead to divorce in marriages.

  1. Criticism includes complaining with blaming or attacking. This in essence, is complaint as an attack on a partner.
  2. Defensiveness is experienced as a way of warding off perceived attack, and not taking responsibility for even a part of the problem.
  3. Contempt is shown by different facial expressions such as rolling of the eye, and body language that put partners down. What is clear, is the despising and devaluing of partners. One partner acts superior to the other, is disrespectful, and speaks down the other partner.
  4. Stonewalling involves the listener withdrawing from the conflict. For example, when one partner continues to be silent in an argument, the conflict could escalate because of his or her non-responsiveness to his spouse.

According to Gottman, these four negative patterns are like the four horsemen of the Apocalypse in the book of Revelations, "they spell the end of days." As the levels of these behaviors increase, loneliness and isolation also increase, and there is likelihood of marital disintegration that could lead to divorce.

In Summary

Validating, volatile, and conflict-avoiding couples are all different, but their marital relationships can last because they maintain the 5 to 1 ratio, where their positive interactions outweigh the negative ones.

Volatile couples balance their emotions with affection and humor. In contrast, avoiders are not particularly demonstrative, but they don’t have a lot of negative feelings to overcome. Further, validators show a lot of self-control, and are concerned about each other's feelings.

What is important, with these three types of couples, is that the positive and accepting aspects of their interactions substantially outweigh the negative aspects. But this is not so for hostile couples, who are contemptuous in their interactions with each other, and fail to maintain a positive balance.

References and Further Reading

John Gottman & Nan Silver (1994). What makes marriage work? Accessed July 15, 2013.

Miller, R. S. & Perl, D. (2008). Intimate relationships.(5th. ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Couples Training Center (n.d.). Gottman’s Couples & Marital Therapy. accessed July 15, 2013.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Yvette Stupart PhD

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