Here’s a simple truth about life: it’s not perfect, nor are we.

That includes our relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners. We fight, argue, get on each other’s nerves, and go through ups and downs. What differentiates couples who break up from couples that stay strong together is the ability to navigate the murky waters of conflict. As it turns out, it’s all about our communication habits.

If you’re experiencing relationship issues, chances are that either one of you or both tend to:

  • criticize each other,
  • get defensive,
  • talk down to one another,
  • give each other the silent treatment.

Luckily, there’s so much you can do to improve the way you handle arguments in your relationship, starting with educating yourself on the most common mistakes to avoid.

Keep on reading and learn how to better yourself as a partner while supporting your mental well-being along the way!

overcoming trust issues in partnerships

The 4 Horsemen of Apocalypse by John Gottman

When fighting with your partner:
Do both sides tend to listen to each other actively, create a safe space, and cultivate compassion?


Are your conversations filled with sarcasm, passive-aggressive comments, and weaponizing each other’s vulnerabilities?

John Gottman, an iconic American couples therapist, dedicated his life to researching what makes or breaks relationships. Thanks to his research (learn more about his “love lab” here) and extensive experience as a mental health professional, he was able to divide the couples into masters and disasters of relationships:

  • He claims that masters treat each other with an open and non-violent attitude.
  • However, disasters usually have 4 communication habits in common, which he named the 4 Horsemen of Apocalypse, as they accurately predict divorce and break-ups of such couples.

Let’s take a closer look at these 4 relationship mistakes to avoid and alternative ways of managing conflict instead:

Mistake 1: Criticism

Characteristics An Example
  • attacking the partner right off the bat,
  • blaming your partner,
  • listing their flaws,
  • starting the discussion with “you”,
  • black-and-white thinking, i.e., using words like always/never.
“You never take out the trash.

I swear I always need to do it myself.

I’m so sick of you not caring about that at all!”

The Solution: Gentle Start-Up

Characteristics  Example
  • using “I” statements”,
  • focusing on the issue rather than your partner’s character,
  • talking about your feelings and needs,
  • starting the conversation softly, without blaming anyone.
“I feel frustrated and taken for granted when I come home after a long day of work and see the trash spilling out of the bin.

Could you please be more mindful of keeping our space clean?”

Mistake 2: Defensiveness

Characteristics  Example
    • a common response to criticism (either real or perceived),
    • escalating the conflict rather than solving it,
    • a form of self-protection:
      • being outraged,
      • playing a victim,
      • blaming your partner.
“Of course, you immediately blame me!

It’s not my fault that every little thing like trash bothers you.

If only you were just a bit more chill, we wouldn’t have this argument now!”

The Solution: Taking Responsibility

Characteristics Example
  • focus on recognizing your part of this conflict and take responsibility for it,
  • acknowledge your partner’s feelings,
  • tend to their needs,
  • aks how to improve for the future,
  • that posture leads to compromise instead of further conflict.
“I also don’t like a messy house.

I admit that I tend to ignore the trash from time to time.

I’ll be more mindful of that.

Does that sound good to you?”

Mistake 3: Stonewalling

Characteristics Example
  • The person who’s stonewalling seems to not care or ignore their partner, looking away and not responding.
  • The truth is they’re emotionally overwhelmed and experiencing physiological flooding:
    • a situation when your body detects danger and releases stress hormones,
    • it leads to a “freeze, fight or flight” reaction.
  • aim: self-soothing to bring your body back to the optimal state (decreased heart rate)
  • stopping the conflict and taking a 20-min break during which your body can flush out the stress hormone,
  • not feeding into the conflict during a timeout.
Taking timeout, during which it’s best to distract yourself with mindful activities such as:

  • walking outside,
  • reading a book,
  • cleaning up.

Mistake 4: Contempt

Characteristics Example
      • contempt is the biggest predictor of divorce,
      • talking down to your partner,
      • acting as if you’re superior in your couple,
      • a spectrum from being mean-spirited to abusing someone emotionally
      • putting another person down with, i.e.:
        • sarcasm,
        • mockery,
        • name-calling.
“Why am I not surprised that when I come home, the trash is spilling out of the bin yet again?

Is there anything you’re good at?

Sometimes I wonder why I am still with a person like you…”

The Solution: Culture of Appreciation

Characteristics  Example
  • Instead of fixating on your partner’s imperfections, try focusing on what they’re doing right.
  • Express your understanding, gratitude, and appreciation as often as you can.
  • Formulate your requests with respect and gentleness.
  • Try using the magic ratio of having 1 negative interaction for every 5 positive ones.
“I know that we’re both busy and have a lot on our plates, but it would be amazing if you could also take the trash out once in a while.

Could you remember about that?

It would mean a lot to me.”

common pitfalls in long term relationships

Overcome Your Relationship Issues With Harbor Psychiatry

Getting to know the four horsemen is not aimed at avoiding conflict at all costs. Quite the opposite. Each conflict presents a unique growth opportunity where you and your partner can deepen your understanding of each other’s needs and emotions.

It’s about learning how to navigate arguments, manage these difficult conversations, face them together as a couple, and go out on the other side stronger, more stable, and with deeper compassion.

If you’ve been facing relationship issues for a while, you might feel overwhelmed, stressed, or burnt out. But you don’t have to go through this challenging time alone. Discussing your problems with an experienced psychotherapist from our team can help you and your partner:

  • gain essential communication skills,
  • learn how to best take care of one another,
  • replace any bad habits with healthy alternatives.

Click here and contact us today to start your journey towards mental well-being and happiness in your relationship.