Defensiveness and Stonewalling: Last “Horsemen”

In today’s article, the final one in a series about John Gottman‘s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (see the previous two posts), marriage-killers defensiveness and stonewalling are featured.

Ellie Lisista defines defensiveness on the Gottman blog:

…self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack. Many people become defensive when they are being criticized, but the problem is that its perceived effect is blame. Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, ‘The problem isn’t me, it’s you.’ As a result, the problem is not resolved and the conflict escalates further.

The antidote, she says, “is to accept responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict.”

Her definition of stonewalling:

Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction, shutting down and closing themselves off from the speaker because they are feeling overwhelmed or physiologically flooded. Rather than confronting the issue, someone who is stonewalling will be totally unresponsive, making evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive behaviors. It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable ‘out,’ but when it does, it frequently becomes a habit.

The first advised antidote here is to learn when to stop when feeling overwhelmed. Then take a break of at least 20 minutes—during which your goal needs to be self-soothing, not brooding.

Steven Stosny, PhD, Psychology Today, points out that whereas the other three Horsemen are found about equally between men and women, stonewalling is committed more often by men.

Two types of stonewalling are identified: aggressive and defensive.

In aggressive stonewalling, the stonewaller knows that the silence, cold shoulder, and emotional isolation hurt his partner. He stonewalls to gain leverage or power. This is a common tactic in battering relationships, in which the more powerful partner systematically controls or dominates the less powerful one.

In defensive stonewalling, conflict seems overwhelming to the stonewallers. It seems that their only choice is to shut it out (stonewall) or crush it with aggression. So shutting it out seems the better of the two. Of course, treatment teaches them that there are other choices, such as emotion regulation, engagement, and connection.

Either strategy serves to help the perpetrator feel less inadequate. However, in actuality, “Like all avoidance strategies, stonewalling only proves that we are inadequate and unlovable, or else we wouldn’t need to do it. Thus the more we do it, the more it seems that we need to do it.”

The discomfort of this feeling can be alleviated, explains Stosny, when one realizes that communication and conflict resolution are learnable skills—and just as anything else in your life that’s been worth learning often started with a sense of inadequacy and changed once you committed to the process, this will too.

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