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

Building Trust in Friendship

Most people will agree that trust is an important element in their friendships. What does “trust” mean? And why is it important in friendship?

Trust can mean something slightly, or dramatically, different to each of us. Being clear with your friends about what trusts does mean to you can be the first step in building trust in those friendships. Think about the words you associate with trust — dependability, responsibility, integrity, honesty, and commitment are some words that might help to understand and clarify the meaning of trust for each of us.

In friendships, as in all relationships, trust is one of the foundational building blocks. We need trust to establish and deepen our friendships. Trust allows us to feel safe with friends: safe to make plans and safe to share ourselves and our lives. Trust requires that we keep our promises and show demonstrations of dependability, respect, and honour.

In friendships, as in all relationships, the betrayal of trust can be devastating. Betraying a friend’s confidence, that is, sharing something that a friend confided in us, can dent the trust in a friendship. This is only one example of how trust can be betrayed in a friendship and we will be exploring this topic further in a future blog including how to recover from the betrayal of trust in friendship.

So how do we build a trustworthy friendship?

It is important to explore and understand what trust means to us and what it means to our friends. It is also important to show that we are trustworthy to each other. We have to demonstrate to each other that we are trustworthy. For example, matching our actions to our words.

Trust can be built and maintained in many different ways in a friendship.

In the beginning, when we are first creating a friendship, some ways to demonstrate trust are to:

Be dependable: return calls and messages, be there, show up (more or less on time).

Be kind: if one person changes or cancels plans, we will contact each other to find out if everything is alright.

Be fully present: Trust that we will listen with our full attention, put down the devices, resist advice giving, and offer our presence. This can be more challenging today with technology accompanying us when we spend time with friends. “Designing” the environment so that we can listen to each other might be a helpful strategy. For example, designing how you will deal with your devices, or talking about whether you want to be listened to or receive advice.

Be thoughtful: communicate and respond with respect, empathy, and kindness. Sharing too much intimate information about ourselves in the early phase of a friendship can be overwhelming, for both people. This can be a good opportunity to talk about what we can do to build trust in the relationship.

Be reciprocative: give and take, mutually and with reciprocity. For example, invite our friend to do things and trust that our friend will invite us too.

As we move further into a friendship, some ways to demonstrate trust to maintain or deepen the friendship are to:

Demonstrate integrity: show that we can be trusted with intimate, private information that our friend shares with us. Show that we trust our friend with intimate, private information that we share, trusting that our friend will not gossip about it with others. Discussing and being clear about our boundaries, what is and is not to be shared, is one way to take care of ourselves as well as take care of and strengthen the friendship.

Demonstrate inter-dependence: show that we will ask each other for help. Trust that we will each ask for help when we feel scared, panicked, or desperate. The act of asking for help and the type of help we can offer a friend are great conversation topics to have with friends and can also strengthen friendship.

Demonstrate commitment: reach out and stay connected with each other through distance, space and gaps.

“I don’t feel very much like Pooh today,” said Pooh.
“There there,” said Piglet. “I’ll bring you tea and honey until you do.”
~ A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

It takes effort, patience, and time to build trust in a friendship. Talking about what we can do to build or deepen trust in the friendship is a great way to secure the foundation of trust.

Questions to ponder:
How can you build trust in your friendship(s)?
What does trust mean to you? What does it mean to your friends?
When do you talk about what a friend has shared with you? When does it become gossip? When does it become harmful to a friendship?