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

Friendship and Caregiving: Smart Strategies for Staying Connected

At some point in our lives it is likely that we will be a caregiver to someone we love: our
child, our spouse, our parent(s), or a relative. It can happen suddenly, we find ourselves needing to give care to a family member who has become acutely physically and/or mentally ill, or we might slowly become a caregiver to a relative who has a chronic illness with its ongoing ebb and flow.

Being a caregiver is the kind of role and responsibility that can be both purposeful and all-
consuming. Caring for another human being, especially someone who is ill, is deeply emotional and physical work that the toll it can take has its own term: caregiver burnout. It takes energy to care for a person who is unwell. Someone recently said to me that, “it can feel like our energy is being taken by them because s/he needs it for themselves.”

We often want to turn to our family for help and support but there are many reasons which can make this challenging: family members may feel stretched to their limits, our relatives might live far away from us, there can be an emotional distance or estrangement, and unfortunately our family members, like many people, can feel uncomfortable with frailty and illness.

Caregiving can be an opportunity to deepen our friendships, especially when finding the time to get together with those very friends can be difficult. It is at these times that we, as friends, can step in and show up. We can give care to our care-giving friend, which can go a long way to help him/her keep their energy positive and stay well. It is a time when we can show that “I am with you in this.”

There are all kinds of ways to be supportive and stay connected with friends in a way that is comfortable for us and helpful to them. Offering our time and our ears to listen are gifts in themselves. Here are some other possibilities that I have found helpful in my life:

We can acknowledge that we need help. Sharing what we are going through can be helpful in letting our friend know that we are feeling stressed. Thinking about and asking for the kinds of support that will help us is a radical act of vulnerability and intimacy, the kind that brings friendships closer.

We can offer practical help and support in terms of running errands and doable actions. 
It might be offering to pick up or deliver the dry cleaning, return library books or videos that are due, mow the lawn or shovel the sidewalk, pick up the mail or water the houseplants, feed the cat or dog, or go grocery shopping for them.

We can feed our friends and their family by preparing or dropping off easy-to-reheat meals, offering a home-made treat made with them in mind.

We can pay a visit to our friend and their loved one. It does not need to be long, even a brief visit will give a burst of joy and caring to a friend.

We can invite our friend and their family member to a movie, to an amusement or
show, for a meal, over for the holidays. Extending an invite to include a friend’s family member is a generous, caring gesture that will be cherished and remembered, even if it does not happen.

We can accompany our friend when they visit their relative in a health or residential care setting. Care settings can be stressful environments and sometimes just being there  with our friend during a visit is support enough. Or we can connect with our friend for a conversation afterward to find out how the visit(s) went.

We can connect via Skype or speakerphone with our friend and their relative. Technology can be really helpful to stay connected. Saying hello to your friend’s relative can make a huge difference and put a smile on everyone’s face.

We can offer to connect with or check in on their family member when they are away
(so that they can go away with added peace of mind).

We can share something that we think will make them laugh: a joke, a cartoon, a

These are just some ideas and suggestions. Each situation is unique, sometimes we might have to think outside the box and be creative. Even discussing this with a friend, asking them to choose out of a few options that are doable for you, will be a wonderful opportunity to acknowledge this time of need for support and connection.It can bring friends closer together, to bond in a special new way, perhaps to become family.

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”

~ Brene Brown