Frequent Arguments, Relationship Conflict & Common Problem Behaviours

Repeated arguments or stresses about a variety of topics can sometimes lead to a communication breakdown between the partners in a relationship. Such communication breakdown often leads to unhealthy, “toxic” patterns of behaviour in which the partners relate to each other in a hurtful and unproductive manner. As communication difficulties are reported as the most common cause of relationship deterioration (1), it’s an important area to work on within your relationship.

Relationship Counselling expert Dr John Gottman explains four such “toxic” ways of interacting that prevent couples from resolving problems constructively (2). In order of least to most dangerous, these common behavioural problems are:

  • criticism
  • contempt
  • defensiveness
  • stonewalling

Let’s take a closer look at the patterns which Dr Gottman identifies:


This pattern involves attacking someone’s personality rather than their behaviour. Airing a complaint, though it may not be pleasant, is a healthy marital or relationship activity – much healthier than suppressing the grievance. Criticism, on the other hand, entails making a personal attack or accusation.
Whereas complaints usually begin with the word I, criticisms usually begin with you. As an example, “I wish we travelled more” is a complaint, whereas “you never take me on holiday” is a criticism. Criticism may seem just a hairs breadth beyond complaining, but receiving a criticism really does feel far worse than receiving a complaint.


This common marriage or relationship problem often follows directly from the first. It is a significant problem for a marriage or coupl because it can poison a relationship. The difference between contempt and criticism, according to Gottman, is that contempt implies the intention to insult and psychologically abuse ones partner. When contempt appears, it can overwhelm the relationship and eclipse positive feelings between partners. Some of the most common expressions of contempt are snide or antagonistic remarks, a mocking attitude and hostile humour. These are all examples of the second common marriage problem, and once a relationship features such interactions, little joy is possible for either partner.


Common relationship problem number 3, defensiveness, emerges when both partners feel victimised by each other, so that neither is willing to initiate action to resolve the initial conflict. One of the reasons that defensiveness can be so destructive is that it becomes a reflex. The victim, reacting on instinct, doesn’t see anything wrong with being defensive. Thus the underlying problems escalate and fester without being resolved. When either partner feels completely righteous in their stance, making excuses and denying responsibility, they add to their marital problems.


Common relationship problem #4, stonewalling, appears when the relationship is nearing rock bottom. This is when one or both partners simply stop responding to each other, not even to act defensively, to the other’s accusations. Feeling overwhelmed by emotions and the problems the marriage is facing, they start withdrawing from each other by presenting a stone wall response (i.e. no response at all). Partners who are stonewalling usually avoid eye contact and use rigid body language (such as no facial movement, not nodding assent, facing away from their partner) to indicate that they are not listening. Stonewalling is in itself a very powerful act: it conveys that the person has completely cut off all lines of communication. Effective communication skills improve relationship satisfaction and reduce conflict (3). Stonewalling will have the opposite effect.

These common marriage problems are not always hallmarks of the end of a relationship, but once routine interactions have deteriorated to this extent, the marriage is very fragile and it is probably essential to seek some external help from a qualified marriage or relationship counsellor.

Remember that anyone may occasionally stonewall or become defensive, contemptuous, or critical. Even perfectly happy couples can occasionally exhibit such behaviours during an intense period of conflict. The real danger here is letting these behaviours become habitual ways of interacting. If you feel that your relationship is characterised by frequent instances of the behaviours listed above, you may wish to seek the advice of a marriage or relationship counsellor who will be able to assist you in addressing your underlying sources of conflict.

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