Dealing With Disagreement in Relationships

Our book Prosper! teaches the crucial importance of building and maintaining supportive relationships with those around us. But this can be a challenge when our loved ones don't share our urgency about the dire problems facing the world. Below, you can read about the factors that worsen relationship problems. Then in Part 2, enrolled members can learn how to approach conflict resolution and repair relationships.

World Stress Can Lead to Relationship Stress

If you're reading this, chances are very good you're concerned about where the world is headed.

The over-leveraged economy. Asset price bubbles across the stock, bond and real estate markets just waiting to pop. Declining world net energy per capita. Escalating geopolitical tensions. Unprecedented die-offs among foundational species in our ecosystems. These are probably just a few of the concerning trends that have your attention.

But if you’re like many of our readers, you’re perplexed that the people around you aren’t as fixated on these issues. In fact, most people prefer to avoid thinking about them. They just want to live their lives, without adding to their worries.

This vast difference in outlook can be incredibly frustrating. Both for you as well as for the other person, who’s just trying to get through the day. And it often results in dysfunction that can be toxic to the relationships you care about.

Many of our readers report feeling isolated by their concerns. No one in their immediate circle of family or friends wants to engage on these topics, and oftentimes respond critically when conversation is attempted (Hey, try looking at the bright side for a change. Why do you have to be such a gloom & doomer, anyways?).

That dynamic often leads to bitterness, confusion and anger, which often spills into other areas of those relationships. Suddenly other small forms of rejection can feel like part of a coordinated affront. (You don’t want to hear why I think the market may crash and you’re choosing to go to your sister’s tonight rather than to the movies with me?)

The danger is this can morph into a larger “You don’t understand me!” or “You don’t care about me!” mindset that, once taken root, colors future interactions with suspicion and cynicism. A vicious cycle of negativity and hurt then builds that can end friendships and marriages.

We’ve heard of dozens – probably hundreds – of relationships that have fallen casualty in this way from our readers over the past decade.

Those who have read our book Prosper! understand the critical importance of Social Capital – being in supporting, trusted relationships with those around us. Social Capital nourishes us emotionally as well as makes us, and our communities, more resilient.

But it requires repeated interaction over long periods of time, and building bonds that can withstand stress. And times are highly likely to get more stressful from here.

Can we prevent this rising stress from straining further the isolation/frustration many of us already have with key people in our lives? Is there a way to navigate our close relationships in a way that can prevent creating irreparable rifts when disagreements arise?

The answer is “yes”, and it’s grounded in decades of scientific research.

It's All About How We Approach Relationship Problems

John Gottman and his wife Julie have been studying relationship stability for over 40 years. Gottman's research, including the famous "Love Lab" he created at the University of Washington, led to the development of the now-standard industry practice of sequential analysis in couples therapy.

Specifically, he discovered that there are patterns of behavior (i.e., sequences of interactions) that discriminate happy couples from unhappy ones.

If you read Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller, Blink, Gottman is the therapist featured at the start of the book, who can predict with 91% accuracy whether a married couple will divorce within 5 minutes of meeting them. That’s because Gottman has put in well over his “10,000 hours” developing mastery in this field, personally conducting 12 longitudinal studies with over 3,000 couples (the longest were followed for 20 years!)

Gottman is a very big deal in the world of couples therapy. I know this first-hand because I’m married to a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist trained in the Gottman Method.

There’s a deep toolkit of Gottman practices for persevering through conflict. My wife reaches into it every time we have a protracted disagreement…

And as weirdly clinical as it may sound, deconstructing an argument while still in the heat of it and applying the defusing and repairing techniques developed by the Gottmans is extremely effective. It can really reverse a “me against you” confrontation into a “we’ll get through this together” collaboration.

The success of this is rooted in an important realization: It isn’t about being right. It’s about finding resolution you can live with.

Everyone is different and sees through their own lens. In many cases, you’re never going to see eye to eye on every issue.

In fact, research shows that 69% of conflict in a relationship is unresolvable and perpetual. It’s not going to get “fixed” – ever.

Gottman discovered that it’s not the disagreements themselves that predict whether partnerships remain healthy, what matters is how the partners deal with those disagreements.

Relationship longevity depends on whether the parties prioritize finding positive ways to understand and accept these differences, or instead focus on trying to force the other to accept their side.

Gottman’s research is very clear that the former approach is far superior. But it’s not always easy to take for most of us, especially when arguments get heated.

What Dooms Relationships: The 4 Horsemen

Over his decades of research, Gottman found that some couples were exceptionally good at managing conflict, and some were spectacularly bad at it. But studying these "Masters and Disasters Of Relationship" closely, best practices and worst practices for nurturing valued long-term relationships became clear.

Couples who fail to stay together, especially the “Disasters”, all exhibit at least one of the following toxic behaviors, termed “The 4 Horsemen” by Gottman:

  • Criticism
  • Defensiveness
  • Stonewalling
  • Contempt
Criticism is finding fault in your partner's character. Rather than having a rational basis, you frame the cause of a disagreement as due to a deficiency in the other person (e.g., "You're so stubborn." "You never try to understand me." "You just don't get it.") Understandably, this comes across as an attack, and emotionally riles up the person on the receiving end.

Defensiveness is expressed as an attempt to protest against a perceived injustice. The most common expressions of defensiveness are adopting a victim mentality and counter-attacking. The former exasperates, the latter escalates.

Stonewalling occurs when one listener mentally withdraws from interaction. It’s basically an abandonment of any attempt to repair the situation. Common signs are no/monosyllabic responses, not appearing to be listening, avoiding eye contact, and arm crossing. Stonewalling sends a strong signal to the other party that you don’t care enough (about their feelings, about being in relationship with them) to fight through the discomfort of the moment.

Contempt is feeling or expressing resentment towards your partner. This is the worst offense: its presence is the best predictor of divorce/break-up. Once contempt is present in a relationship, the parties see each other’s qualities and motives in a negative light by default. When you feel contempt, you feel the other person is ‘below’ you, oftentimes undeserving of you. It’s a very difficult mindset to reverse once it’s ingrained.

To see clips of each of these 'worst practices' in action (taken from actual couples therapy sessions), watch this short video:

How To Build Relationships That Last

When watching the above video, each of us probably sees behavior that looks familiar. We're all guilty at some time or another of these transgressions in our interactions with close family and friends.

But that’s not a death sentence for these relationships.

Gottman’s findings show that even the Masters Of Relationship fight. Hey, we’re all human.

But what they do exceptionally well is focusing on repair during and after a disagreement. This attempt at attenuation of injury, of demonstrating care for your partner’s well-being even while arguing with them, is the “key to relationship success” according to Gottman.

By studying the successful strategies of these “Masters”, the Gottman Institute has developed a time-proven framework and series of practices for defeating the 4 Horsemen – avoiding hurtful behavior when possible, repairing the damage when not, and using conflict when it arises to strengthen relationship bonds vs weakening them.

Applying these techniques to the areas of conflict in your marriage, your friendships and your workplace – especially when done under the guidance of a licensed therapist – can be transformative in returning strained relationships back into flourishing ones.

In Part 2: How To Manage Conflict & Build Relationships That Last we detail out the specific conflict resolution progression prescribed by the Gottman Method in a way that you can immediately start applying in your life.

If there are key relationships you value (spouse, partner, friends, co-workers, neighbors) that are at risk, you’ll definitely want to read this.

And lucky you; you’re getting these gems without having to sit through the long couples weekend workshops I’ve had to. My wife drags me to one every few years to meet her continuing education requirements. (That, plus we often genuinely can use the relationship tune-up.)

Click here to read Part 2 of this report (free executive summary, enrollment required for full access).

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

While you can learn communication skills that will greatly strengthen or preserve a relationship, for example how to listen effectively, it is important to realize that relationships can also be toxic and shouldn’t be endured because our modern humanitarian hippy culture pressures us to use love to work things out.
Inevitably, the personality patterns/types that coalesce into a more analytical or logical appraisal of the world are simply not compatible with personality types that rely more on emotion and popular opinion for their sense of right and wrong. The two types can definitely learn to communicate with and respect one another but that still requires a rare intelligence and determination to practice the communication (listening) techniques necessary to reach consensus.
If our children were taught these (listening) skills in school and emphasis placed on understanding human behavior, the species would be better able to accept world saving ideas that require a distinct change in thinking. Of course our newspapers and politicians would lose their ability to manipulate the masses as education becomes an honest trade, as opposed to the status-quo perpetuating, government propaganda machine it appears to be today.

I agree with what pgp said:

While you can learn communication skills that will greatly strengthen or preserve a relationship, for example how to listen effectively, it is important to realize that relationships can also be toxic and shouldn't be endured because our modern humanitarian hippy culture pressures us to use love to work things out. [bold mine]
Many of us grow up thinking that we should do whatever it takes to try to save our long-term relationship with our spouse/significant other. I know I did, and I invested literally decades of my life "investing" (I thought) in what I believed to be the thing of greatest value in my life: my relationship with my husband. Such an investment may be warranted if you are dealing with two basically normal and psychologically healthy individuals. But what we may not realize -and what I learned the hard way- is that sometimes these relationships are not worth saving. Specifically, I’m talking about the case when you are in a relationship with someone who is not a normal, psychologically healthy human being; a narcissist. This is an example of a toxic relationship that should not be endured, because there will never be a healthy foundation on which to build. Learning that you are (or were) in a relationship with a narcissist is not necessarily an immediate, clear-cut revelation. It often only happens after your life and long-term relationship has already been devastated, and you are trying to make sense of what happened. Your spouse doesn’t come with “narcissist” stamped on their forehead. And covert narcissists excel at projecting a mask or persona that is very attractive in order to get the attention and admiration they they crave and require: they often appear charming, altruistic, loving, and kind. It is often only after years of “conflicting signals” that one realizes that the wonderful person everyone else sees (and who you were originally attracted to) and the person you experience are two different people: the person you know in private is controlling, must always be right and come out on top, is manipulative, lacks empathy, cares only about their needs, and uses shaming and denigration to control and devalue their significant other. They may lie and cheat without remorse or guilt (embarrassment at getting caught, yes; remorse or guilt, no). So the reason I being this up is as a form of caveat emptor, buyer beware. If you are in a relationship with a basically healthy human being, by all means, do what you can to improve the quality of that relationship and to keep it alive and healthy. But if the person you are in a relationship with does not treat you with basic kindness and empathy, can’t handle dissenting opinions, controls vs cooperates, denigrates/shames you, and does not recognize your needs as having any value, then maybe it is in your interest to explore the topic of narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) further, to see if you are in an inherently toxic relationship, before investing more years of your life in this relationship. Some books I found to be very useful/insightful: Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited by Sam Vaknin The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping with the One-Way Relationship in Work, Love, and Family, by Eleanor D. Payson, M.S.W. In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People, by George Simon, Jr., Ph.D. Here's a video with an introduction on the topic of narcissists: Eight Indicators of Narcissism

One of the things that stuck with me is understanding that you can’t give answers to questions that people aren’t asking. The best thing to do is model the example that you are advocating for because actions speak louder than words. The other thing is just listening to folks and helping them out (people don’t listen until they know you care) - stepping into their lives and just hear them out without judgment. Ask them questions…you know Jesus did something very unique in the bible whenever he engaged with someone he always asked questions (almost annoyingly…Lady at the well: hello good sir!..Jesus: why do you call me good?) to open people up in their own assumptions…starting the conversation there.
“You can not change the world to make yourself happy or free. You must change yourself to make your world happy & free.” — Chris Duane

jomurphy09 wrote:
One of the things that stuck with me is understanding that you can't give answers to questions that people aren't asking. The best thing to do is model the example that you are advocating for because actions speak louder than words.
Understanding that unsolicited advice is of no value and socially unacceptable is indead a hard lesson to learn. These days, I am frequently in contact with people I care about who are killing themselves with the food they eat. Some of them are on death's door and don't understand they are largely responsible for their perdicament. I've learned the hard way that telling someone that they are killing themself with their fork and knife is one of the most socially unacceptable pieces of advice that you can give. Shortly, I will be headed to a retirement community in Southern Arizona where I will enjoy the company of an older crowd for the winter. I do enjoy wintering in Arizona, but I know that I will witness a health tragedy or three this winter.

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is groundbreaking relationship therapy. Check out her website and books. Everyone should know about this.


Great article and ever so timely! Quality posts too. Good job Adam!

And this is the perfect example of why repetition is helpful. I remember reading the original post with much interest, and yet…did I put it into practice in my life? I do remember the Four Horseman, and discussing said Horsemen with the relevant parties, but I didn’t go to the next step of putting it into practice.
Thanks for the reminder!

What you’re describing is not just a narcissist, but rather a sociopath with narcissistic tendencies.
I’m a bit of a sociopath myself, but not necessarily in a bad way. Empathy for us isn’t natural/automatic/emotional. It’s cognitive and formulaic. Empathy is something we understand, but not something we feel.
That said, I’ve managed to be married for 8 years without cheating despite being in a sales job with high travel. But what keeps me honest is not emotional empathy… It’s more selfish reasons: 1.) I will 100% get caught, 2.)I don’t want to lose my wife and kids.
Interestingly though, I FEEL massive empathy as it relates to society at large and the planet itself.

Acquaint oneself with Cluster B traits then steer clear. There is no way to talk rationally with these personality types.

Acquaint oneself with Cluster B traits then steer clear.
I had to look that one up. The problem is, some of those are hard to detect at first. By the time you do, damage and difficulty may well have resulted.