Conflict in Friendship: The Four Horsemen

Here is an idea about conflict in friendship: you can find inner-peace and a deeper connection with your friends, through conflict. We are discussing conflict in the context of a friendship that means a lot to you, you care about each other and this is a connection where there is more at stake. The conflict may cause hurt and/or harm to both people in the friendship and there is potentially more to lose.

Many friendships end when we reach a place of conflict. How we deal with it, or don’t deal with it, can impact our friendship and often we don’t know how to successfully navigate a conflict in our friendship.

Here’s what we mean by conflict: conflict is a strong disagreement between two people. It can be a difference of opinion, when opinions clash or when someone does something we perceive as offensive, insensitive or insulting.

We might not see the connection between how we are as a friend and how we are as a daughter, sibling, parent, partner, etc. It is likely that how we deal with conflict and our conflict style is something most likely learned from our family. It is probably similar across all our relationships including our friendships. It is difficult to acknowledge how ugly we can be in conflict, and it is humbling.

In his research on relationships, Dr. John Gottman discovered four main ways that we deal with conflict or difficult conversations. He called them The Four Horsemen. They are Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling and Contempt.


How do the Four Horsemen show up in friendship?

Criticism – When we attack our friend at their core, dismantling their whole being with criticism (different from voicing a complaint or offering a critique of a behaviour). When we criticize our friend, we are basically implying there is something wrong with them. Our friend becomes the focus of the problem instead of seeing it as problem between the two of you that you can share and solve together.

Defensiveness – When we perceive ourselves to be threatened or attacked by our friend, we feel the need to defend ourselves with reasons and/or excuses. We often see ourselves as a victim. We might respond in a way that blames our friend.

Stonewalling – When we withdraw from the interaction, when one person closes themselves off from the other in silence without communicating an intent to return to the conversation or friendship. Rather than addressing the issue with our friend we make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, or acting “busy.”

Contempt – When we are truly mean, treating our friend with disrespect, making hurtful comments, mocking them with sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, and/or body language such as eye-rolling. The target of contempt is made to feel worthless and despised.

What if we look at conflicts in our friendships through the lens of the Four Horsemen? Awareness of the Four Horsemen can be really helpful, knowing which ones are our default(s), our fall-back behaviours, and the ones we are most drawn to out of familiarity.

Being able to identify The Four Horsemen in conflicts with our friends is a necessary first step to eliminating them, but this knowledge is not enough. To drive away destructive communication patterns, we must replace them with healthy, productive ones. Checking in with ourselves about which of the Four Horsemen is showing up in our response to our friend(s) is a great first step.

Pay close attention the next time you find yourself engaged in a difficult conversation, argument or conflict with your friend. See if you can spot any of The Four Horsemen, and try to observe their effects on you and the people involved.

Being open to and getting through conflict has the potential to develop trust and intimacy in friendships. Knowing that both of you are ready and willing to stay, listen to each other’s perspective and work through the conflict will strengthen your friendship and deepen your trust. It is great for your emotional health, psychological health and social health.

Questions you might ask yourself:
* How do we take responsibility for our part in conflict?
* What if I behave in a way that upsets my friend, and they don’t tell me?
* Are we both willing to work out the conflict(s)? How do you know?

“We’re all just walking each other home.” ~ Ram Dass

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