Apr 13

Defensiveness and Stonewalling: Gottman

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

Defensiveness and Stonewalling Expained

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: “…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.

Apr 08

Criticism, You’re Bad and Hurtful!

As Oscar Wilde put it, “Criticism is the only reliable form of autobiography.” It tells you more about the psychology of the criticizer than the people he or she criticizes. Steven Stosny, Psychology Today

As the first of relationship expert John Gottman‘s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—the communication styles that can be the most destructive to a couple—criticism is the negative foundation on which the other three (contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling) often build.

On the Gottman blog Ellie Lisista explains that criticizing is not the same as complaining or voicing a critique. Whereas “(t)he latter two are about specific issues…the former is an ad hominem attack: it is an attack on your partner at the core. In effect, you are dismantling his or her whole being when you criticize.”

Steven Stosny, PhD, Psychology Today, lists the ways criticism hurts relationships. When it’s:

  • About personality or character, rather than behavior
  • Filled with blame
  • Not focused on improvement
  • Based on only one “right way” to do things
  • Belittling

Never effective as a way to produce change, as Stosny points out, criticism rankles because of two major pet peeves of human beings—submission and devaluation. What we really want are the opposites, cooperation and to be valued.

If you’re a continual criticizer, you might not even know it. The behavior is often learned in childhood, and perhaps because it was common in your family you’ve failed to recognize it as a problem.

How to own your tendencies, says Stosny: “If someone tells you you’re critical, you probably are. But there’s even a better way to tell: Think of what you automatically say to yourself if you drop something or make a mistake. Critical people will typically think, ‘Oh you idiot,’ or, ‘Jerk,’ or just curse or sigh in disgust. If you do that to yourself, you most likely do it to others as well.”

Brené Brown offers a few ways to work on not being so critical (The Huffington Post):

  • “Be mindful…It might seem awkward at first, but the next time you feel judgmental, stop and ask yourself, ‘What’s really going on here’?”
  • “Change your inner monologue.” Be kinder to yourself.
  • “Make a pact with a friend or a family member. Declare a judgment-free week — or, if you’re feeling brave, month. There will be long periods of silence; it’s a shocker when you realize how much ‘connecting’ we do by talking about others.”

What if you’re not the critical one but you have to deal with someone who is? Margarita Tartakovsky, Psych Central, quotes therapist Ashley Thorn, who says a few things to avoid are getting defensive, fighting back, and/or staying silent.

Thorn’s advice on what to actually do:

  • “Be assertive.” Let the person know this doesn’t work for you.
  • “Back up words with behavior.” You may have to walk away, hang up the phone, etc.
  • “Give feedback.” Offer some constructive words about what would work better than criticism.
  • “Remember you’re worthwhile.” Remind yourself “you’re so much more than what one person says.”
  • “Take a break from the relationship.” If the above type of strategies don’t work, this could be necessary.