Last week we talked about 2 of the 4 behaviors (or horsemen of the apocalypse) that Dr. John Gottman found greatly contribute to relationship conflicts: Criticism and Contempt. (Read more in: 4 Behaviors That Sabotage your Relationships (Part I))
While Contempt is the single biggest predictor of divorce, there are 2 more behaviors that create trouble in relationships: Defensiveness and Stonewalling. Why are they so hurtful?
When people become defensive, it’s usually because they feel like they are being attacked and are trying to protect themselves. Oftentimes, they respond defensively because someone criticizes them.
For example, let’s say you and your partner are arriving late to a party and he complains about always being late. A defensive response would be: “It’s not my fault that we are always late, it’s your fault!
We may feel justified in being defensive, since it was the other person that was criticizing us in the first place. The problem is that by being defensive, we are blaming the other person and in effect criticizing them. We are essentially saying: The problem isn’t me, it’s you.
You can see how that doesn’t really solve the problem and only escalates the conflict further, one damaging behavior triggering the next and so on.
What can we do instead of being defensive? A non-defensive response would be to take responsibility, even if just for part of the conflict. For example: “You know what, part of it is me. I don’t begin to get ready early enough. Next time, I’ll start getting ready earlier.”
When we take responsibility for some part, we acknowledge that we have a role in the problem and we can now have a real dialogue with the other person – you become a team working through the problem together.
Stonewalling usually occurs when the first 3 behaviors have created so much negativity that it has gotten overwhelming and we decide that the only way out is to shut down and close ourselves off completely. Someone who stonewalls can be totally unresponsive, turn away, or act busy.
If stonewalling continues, it can be very frustrating for the other person. Imagine someone trying to explain their feelings or trying to reach a resolution and the other person is pretending that they aren’t there.
What to do? When you feel that things are escalating to a level where you are feeling extremely upset, it’s time to stop! Let the other person know that you are feeling overwhelmed and need some time for a break. Then take at least 20 minutes to do something that is soothing and distracting, whether it’s listening to music, walking around the block, or reading a magazine.
Oftentimes, these 4 behaviors show up together. One behavior like criticism can trigger others, like defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling, and they can keep you stuck in a circle.
Keep in mind that nobody is perfect, and it’s normal for these behaviors to come up at times. The key is to catch it when it happens and repair it. My boyfriend and I will usually call each other or ourselves out with humor when we notice them. I might say something like “Did I just sound defensive?” or “Hey, do I hear some blaming going on?” in a funny voice. That’s usually enough to get us to stop, laugh and reset.
Which behaviors have you noticed the most in your relationships?
Manuela loves helping smart and creative women bring more balance, happiness and success into their lives through Professional Life Coaching!