Researchers at the Gottman Relationship Institute have identified five of the most common, destructive patterns in arguments. Couples that fall into these patterns are far more likely to break up than those who bicker in more constructive ways, but if you find yourself in these heated exchanges, all hope is not lost.

If you want to save your relationship, a key step is being able to identify these types of arguments, and learn not only how to avoid them, but to learn and grow from them.

1) The victim and the aggressor

One person plays the hard-done-by victim while the other is combative and aggressive.

Typical exchange:

“You’re always so mean to me! I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this!” “Well, if you weren’t so pathetic, maybe this wouldn’t happen!”

How to avoid it:

“Everyone resents being told they’re something they’re not,” Dr Cecilia D’Felice, couples expert for dating website told The Daily Mail. “But if you’re being put into the role of aggressor, it’s important to remember both of you have a choice. When the victim says, “it’s nothing to do with me, it’s always you who decides,” rather than the aggressor yelling, “Well, that’s because you won’t take any responsibility!”, they should try, ” I don’t want to be the one who always makes the decisions – can we find a compromise so we’re both involved?” If you play the victim, D’Felice suggests saying you feel attacked, to force the aggressor to come to terms with their behaviour. 


2) Defensiveness

When you feel under attack, you become defensive, protecting yourself from criticism by refusing to take any responsibility for the issue

Typical exchange:

“You never spend any time with the children!” “I always look after them when you go out with your friends. If anyone is a bad parent, it’s you!”

How to avoid it:

Defensiveness is a natural response when we feel attacked, but arguments will go nowhere unless you can break the cycle. Dr D’Felice says this sort of argument can be avoided by thinking seriously about what you want to get out of the discussion before you start it. In the above exchange, one parent wants the other to spend more time with the kids. Instead of saying, “You never spend more time with the children”, they should try saying, “Why don’t you take the kids to the pool on the weekend? They’re always talking about how much fun it was last time”.



3) Stonewalling

One person, typically the man, refuses to discuss a subject, choosing to leave rather than have an argument. 

Typical exchange 

“Well, what do you think? Say something!”

Stonewaller: “There’s nothing to say. I’m going out.” 

How to avoid it:

While it can be tempting to provoke the stonewaller until they explode, Dr D’Felice says that this is the wrong way to deal with the situation. Instead, try saying in a calm voice: “When you go into your shell, we can’t talk about what we’re both feeling”. If you’re the stonewaller, you need to see that arguments can be constructive. Agree to listen to your partner’s feelings without interrupting, and then share yours.


4) Extreme criticism

Arguments that descend into hurtful personal comments often mean a relationship is at breaking point because name-calling is fuelled by resentment.

Typical exchange: 

“I hate how selfish you are. You only ever think of yourself.” “Well, you’re a nagging old cow. I wish you’d just shut up and give me some peace.”

How to avoid it:

The only way to escape this toxic cycle is to stop resorting to verbal abuse. Take a deep breath and express your complaint without any criticism attached. Instead of saying, “You’re so lazy, you never help with the housework,” say, “I’m feeling really overwhelmed. Can you help me with the housework?”


5) Contempt

If you’re arguing in this way, your relationship is in crisis. You have no respect for each other and only speak to express your contempt for your partner.

Typical exchange: 

“There’s no point even talking to you because I know what you’re going to say.” “Good. I don’t want to talk to you either.” 

How to avoid it:

The only way this behaviour can change is if you’re both still committed to making the relationship work. If you are both invested in the partnership, you need to sit down and calmly and openly discuss your feelings. Listen to your partner without interrupting and insist they do the same for you. “Arguments can be like a storm. Clear the air,” says Dr D’Felice. “A good argument should be enjoyable and move you both to where you want to be.”


This article was originally published on The Singapore Women’s Weekly