John Gottman - Four Types of Conflict Resolution in Marriage

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: What We Really Fight Over in Marriage

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.

How Do You Deal with Conflict in Your Marriage?

In dealing with conflict in your own marriage, which type of couple are you?

  • Validating
  • Volatile
  • Conflict-avoiding
  • Hostile
See results without voting

The Four Types of Couples

According to Gottman, there are three types of problem-solving approaches in healthy marriages, volatile, validating, and conflict-avoiding. These three approaches can lead to stable and enduring marriages. However, a fourth approach to conflict resolution, hostile, 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.

Volatile couples have frequent passionate arguments.
Volatile couples have frequent passionate arguments. | Source

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.

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.

Couples who are validators are are calmer, and consider the feelings of their spouses, even if they don't agree.
Couples who are validators are are calmer, and consider the feelings of their spouses, even if they don't agree. | Source

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.

Avoiders don't argues because they avoid confrontation.
Avoiders don't argues because they avoid confrontation. | Source

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, that 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 spouse often try to fix the situation on their own, or hope that with the passage of time the problems will work themselves out.

Hostile couples criticize and are contemptuous towards each other.
Hostile couples criticize and are contemptuous towards each other. | Source

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

Conflict- Avoiding
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
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.

Spare Your Relationship: Eliminate the 4 Negative Patterns that Predict Divorce

Time for Self-Examination

Which of the four horsemen of the apocalypse is a prominent feature in your marriage?

  • Criticism, for example, blaming or attack
  • Defensiveness - not taking responsibility for a least a part of the problem
  • Contempt - despising or devaluing each other
  • Stonewalling - withdrawal from the conflict
  • None of the above
See results without voting

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.

Criticism includes complaining with blaming or attacking. This in essence, is complaint as an attack on a partner. Defensiveness on the other hand, is experienced as a way of warding off perceived attack, and not taking responsibility for even a part of the problem.

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 the other partner.

Stonewalling, is listener withdrawal 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.

© 2013 Yvette Stupart PhD

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Join in the conversation ... 16 comments

MsDora profile image

MsDora 3 years ago from The Caribbean

Since we will argue, let's apply the "positivity must outweigh negativity 5 to 1" rule. That gives us freedom to communicate what we feel, but with a sense of responsibility. I like that! Voted Up and Useful.

jabelufiroz profile image

jabelufiroz 3 years ago from India

Great hub on Conflict in Marriage. Voted up.

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Purpose Embraced 3 years ago from Jamaica Author

Hi MsDora and jabelufiroz, thanks for stopping by. I find Gottman's description of how the four types of couple deal with conflict quite insightful. It helps me to look at my own marriage, to see how much the positive interactions are outweighing the negative ones as we deal with conflict.

denise.w.anderson profile image

denise.w.anderson 3 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

This is a very interesting hub. My husband and I are definitely in the avoidance category. After thirty-five years of marriage, we still do our best to avoid conflict, and try to discuss our differences rationally. We made a decision early in our marriage that we would not raise our voices to each other, and for the most part, have done that. There have been times, however, where I have walked out because I am hot under the collar!

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Purpose Embraced 3 years ago from Jamaica Author

Thanks for your comments Denise. It really seems that your marriage has a conflict-avoiding style. But what is important, according to Gottman, is that the positive interactions outweigh the negative ones, as in your case.

CrisSp profile image

CrisSp 2 years ago from Sky Is The Limit Adventure

This is a great article and very educational. I can definitely identify in one of the categories. However, I'm happy to announce that I am imperfectly but happily married for 26 years now.

Voting up and sharing the goodness of this hub.

Thank you.

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Purpose Embraced 2 years ago from Jamaica Author

Congratulations CrisSp, whatever the conflict style you have, it's working! Thanks for your positive comments.

FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

What an excellent hub! I think the percentages in your poll are especially revealing. Voted up and more, plus sharing and pinning.

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Purpose Embraced 2 years ago from Jamaica Author

Thanks for visiting my hub and commenting FlourishAnyWay. I am happy you found it informative.

VVanNess profile image

VVanNess 2 years ago from Prescott Valley

Thank goodness I married an amazing man that works just as hard as I do to express myself and validate the other. Great article!

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Purpose Embraced 2 years ago from Jamaica Author

Thanks VVanNess for visiting my hub and commenting. Congratulations!

DDE profile image

DDE 2 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

A very interesting insight to the way couples can deal with conflict sometimes it can be a challenging effort but sounds a helpful way.

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Purpose Embraced 2 years ago from Jamaica Author

Thanks DDE. Conflicts are inevitable in marriage relationships but how they are dealt with makes all the difference. Even more, the positive interactions between a couple must outweigh the negative ones.

Atuko 20 months ago

The most rewarding thing about magriare is having a helpmate to do life with. Together we can laugh and cry; navigate the waters of those things which are both familiar and unknown; and learn from one another, while also helping to push one another towards new heights which may seem unreachable. Knowing that you have someone to talk through things with makes life so much richer.The most difficult thing about being married is quite simply learning to listen to and communicate with someone who is wired to communicate in a way that is nuanced and different from the way in which you are wired.

Not Better the Second Time 18 months ago

My first marriage was definitely more functional than my second marriage. Even today, my first marriage husband and I were combo of hostile/conflict-avoiding's a shame when first marriages end up in divorce far sooner than they should have. On the other hand, my second marriage is most definitely hostile, matching all of the above criteria...mind you I was his third wife and he is much older than me....this marriage, not surprisingly is on its way out!

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Purpose Embraced 18 months ago from Jamaica Author

Thanks for sharing your experiences. According to Gottman, hostile couples do not maintain the 5 to 1 ratio of positivity to negativity in conflictual situations, and this is likely to lead to divorce.

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    Yvette Stupart PhD (Purpose Embraced)106 Followers
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    Dr. Yvette Stupart is a clinical counselor and educator. She gives insights on how to experience emotional health and relational well-being.

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