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Defensiveness and Stonewalling

This is a follow on from my previous blog on the relationship research carried out by Dr John Gottman and what he calls “the four horsemen”. My previous blog looked at criticism and contempt, this blog looks at the other two horsemen, defensiveness and stonewalling.

Gottman’s work has helped us predict which couples are more likely to build long-term, satisfying relationships and which couples will build relationships that are conflictual, unhappy, and lead toward break up or divorce. They found The research that it is not differences in background, age, or even opinions that make or break a relationship. Rather, it’s behaviours, particularly regarding how people communicate, that influence the health of a relationship the most.

  1. Defensiveness

Defensiveness is the third horseman, and it often coincides with criticism. When we are arguing with our partner,  we can start to feel as if we are often ‘in trouble,’ and experience the emotions of guilt or shame. By trying to find a way to discharge these powerful and unpleasant emotions, we can tend to act defensively. If we notice that we respond to feedback with an excuse, an attack on the other person, or some resistance to accept responsibility, then we are being defensive.

Why is defensiveness damaging?

A defensive reaction can be damaging because it means that we’re unwilling to recognise or admit to our own flaws. We invoke “righteous indignation” or “innocent victimhood” to flip the criticism back on our partner as a form of self-protection. We make it their fault, so that it’s never ours. 

An example of defensiveness

Partner 1: “Did you pay the gas and electric bills this month- you said you would.”

Defensive Partner: “How am I supposed to remember to pay ALL of our bills when I’m also in charge of supervising the childrens’ homework, cooking, cleaning AND visiting your sick mother? This is supposed to be a 50 / 50 partnership – it’s more like 90 / 10!”

Defensiveness causes conflict to escalate because, instead of absorbing a complaint, we turn it into a new criticism of our partner, leading to a cycle of criticism that can lead to contempt. (see previous blog). Once we get into a conversation like the one above, both parties are feeling angry and hard done by. The defensive partner reverses blame in an attempt to make it the other partner’s fault.

We cannot engage in a dialogue with our partners if we are angry so it is important to spot this as soon as it happens and to take a break and each calm down. 

4. Stonewalling

The fourth horseman is stonewalling, which occurs when one partner withdraws from the interaction, shuts down, and simply stops responding rather than confronting the issues. They might just appear to tune out, to become quiet, to break eye contact or pull away from physical contact, to be too busy on a task to really engage, to rapidly change the subject or flat out refuse to discuss the topic or walk away. 

Generally, stonewalling happens as a result of the overwhelming negativity created by the first three horsemen. Like defensiveness, it can be another form of self-protection—we’d rather not face our own shortcomings or the unmet needs of our partner, so we disengage. Sometimes it happens because one partner is emotionally flooded. They are in an emotional overload, and cannot access the part of the brain used for rational thinking. 

The problem with stonewalling, of course, is that if we aren’t addressing conflict, then we’re never fixing the problems at the root of conflict, allowing our problems to fester. This can be damaging to a relationship because it often creates and perpetuates a negative pattern of interaction. When the stonewalling partner disengages, this causes the other person to attempt to get the partner to re-engage or speak. They might ask more questions, or even engage in criticism to try to ‘shake’ their partner out of it, but they only further dysregulate their partner.

How to prevent stonewalling

If you feel like you’re stonewalling during a conflict, stop the discussion and ask your partner to take a break:

“ I’m feeling too angry / upset / anxious to keep talking about this. Can we please take a break and come back to it in a bit? It’ll be easier to work through this after I’ve calmed down.”

Then take 20 minutes to do something alone that soothes you— go for a run, a walk around the block, even just sit quietly in another room, just do anything that helps to stop feeling flooded—and then return to the conversation once you feel ready.

Favourite resources 

These are some of my favourite writers and speakers about communication:

  1. Say What You Mean – A Mindful Approach to Non-Violent Communication –  book by Oren Jay Sofer 
  2. Rick Hanson – a series of excellent podcasts he has made with his son Forest about all kinds of human relationships . Rick is a highly respected psychologist and author.   
  3. Dr John Gottman – world-renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, John Gottman has conducted 50 years of breakthrough research with thousands of couples. He predicted divorce with 90% accuracy based on the first three minutes of a conversation. What he noticed was that couples who started their conflict conversation with criticism and elicited defensiveness in their partner ended up divorcing whereas couples who used “gentle start ups” or began their conversation expressing their feelings and needs stayed together.His excellent website contains numerous videos and blogs about his work and findings.
  4. Esther Perel “Where should we begin?” Psychotherapist Esther Perel is the New York Times bestselling author of The State of Affairs and Mating in Captivity. Her TED talks have generated more than 20 million views and she is also the host    of the popular podcast Where Should We Begin?    3 TEDtalks. See also: 


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Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541


See also: CommunicationCommunication StylesCriticism and contempt