Monday, February 22, 2010


The dictionary definition of stonewalling is “to behave in an obstructive manner, as by withholding information etc.”

This definition seems to imply that a stonewaller is intentionally trying to obstruct or prevent progress by withholding information etc. Often his or her actions and words (or usually lack of actions or words) are seen as not caring or being involved in the relationship. “Why won’t you say something?” is a common complaint about a stonewaller.

Interestingly enough, however, when questioned a little further, what I have found is that stonewallers almost always withhold information or withdraw not because they don’t care but, in fact, because they do care. What has happened is that they have come to the conclusion that virtually anything they say is probably going to make things worse. Therefore, they have chosen to protect the relationship from getting worse by not saying anything.

An alternative for stonewalling, then, is to simply verbalize those thoughts and feelings. “I know it bothers you when I don’t talk but it seems like whenever I say something it makes things worse. I do care about you and our relationship and I don’t want it to get worse.” That would be a first and very important step for a stonewaller, especially the acknowledgement of caring, which most likely, the other spouse has not seen.

Hopefully, with that sincere explanation, the other spouse will be a little more patient and understanding so that when the stonewaller does muster up the courage to say something else, it will be better received and he or she won’t feel the need to withdraw further.

The most important thing in relationships is not whether spouses say the right words or don’t say the wrong words. Rather, it’s an understanding and a feeling or belief that each truly cares about the other and the relationship.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Other Horsemen (Weed Control)

I have offered alternatives and antidotes to criticism and defensiveness, two of the destructive “horsemen” Gottman referred to that would destroy marriages (see post “Other Destructive Weeds”, November 6, 2009 as well as following posts). But what about contempt and stonewalling, the other two “horsemen”?

First, contempt. The dictionary definition of contempt states: “the feeling one has toward somebody or something one considers low, worthless, etc.” In other words, when we feel contempt, we don’t just criticize the actions of the other, we criticize their character, the essence of who they are. It is also important to note that whereas criticizing is something we do, contempt is something we feel.

It is important to understand that feelings are only as real or true as the thoughts that precede them. Just because we feel that a person is worthless, a jerk, a low-life etc., does not mean that they really are. In fact, it has much more to do with our perception, either of the other person or of our relationship (particularly hurts, unintentional or not, that we have received). In fact, sometimes a spouse will state something to the effect that he or she wasn’t there when they needed them or in a really honest moment “Why wouldn’t they fight for me?”

To change our feelings, we need to first change our thoughts. So alternatives and antidotes for contempt are really the same as those for criticism and defensiveness –addressing the real underlying hurts and concerns, choosing to focus more on the positive, having “goodwill”, empathy etc. We can also try to remember how we felt when we first met and were getting to know each other, what attracted us to each other then and choose to focus more on those thoughts and feelings now.

Friday, February 5, 2010


We had an experience recently that really helped me see the problems that defensiveness creates as well as the healing power of empathy.

We were at the airport prepared to take our return flight home and in checking departure times, saw that our flight had been cancelled. No one had notified us and when we checked it, everything was as scheduled. This was disturbing news, of course, and when we went to the gate counter to inquire about this (admittedly with some frustration), the attendant coolly explained that it was weather related so not their fault (no free meal) and that our “travel agent” (which was an on-line service) should have notified us. The more she explained and defended the airline, the more frustrated we became. It was obvious she didn’t care about us. (That is generally the feeling we have when someone acts defensively – that they don’t care about us, they are more interested in defending their position. We feel alienated).

On the positive side, after we ate breakfast (since we had plenty of time), we went back to the gate counter and found a different attendant was there. We explained our situation to her with the same amount of frustration but this attendant said one word that made all the difference - “bummer”. She said it sincerely and then made an effort to help us, to check what flights were available etc. We appreciated her helpfulness and especially her empathy. We felt that she cared about us, that she was on our side.

The question we may want to ask ourselves when we’re tempted to act defensively is “What is our goal?” We can always find reasons to defend ourselves but do we want to be alienated or connected? Defensiveness alienates us from each other. Empathy, seeing things from the other’s perspective and expressing that, makes us feel cared for and connected.