4 Minutes 4 Marriage – Stonewalling

Are you looking at this entry and thinking, “Is it worth it to read this? I have so much to do!”

Don’t give up! I’ll make this short. And let’s make giving up be the topic of the day.

A question for the gentlemen: does even thinking about arguing with your wife raise your heart rate?

You’re not alone. In an argument, men can easily become flooded with adrenaline. The more charged with negative emotion the discussion becomes, the higher their stress level rises until they are so filled with adrenaline they can no longer process the conversation. They need to shut down. They give up, check out emotionally, or stonewall, John Gottman’s last destructive force.

The stonewaller may think he (or she—25% are female) is trying to stay neutral, or keep emotions from spiraling out of control, but his lack of response causes his wife’s heart rate to skyrocket and ultimately will shut down the whole relationship. How can improvements happen if someone has checked out of the discussion?

Another type of stonewalling happens by choice and can even become a habit. He (or she) decides arguing doesn’t work, so chooses to disconnect. Either he stops responding at all, or his responses have nothing to do with the disagreement, or he storms out of the room. One version that many women resort to is the silent treatment.

It takes two people to forge a strong relationship, but one can destroy it. Disengaging from communication keeps anything from being resolved.


  • Take a break, if you need one. (Allow at least 20 minutes for a flooded person to regain normal pulse rate and calm his nervous system.) Tell your spouse when you’ll be able to continue the discussion. Take deep, calming breaths. Go for a walk or exercise to process the adrenaline.
  • Stonewallers can benefit from positive self-talk, assuring themselves that as long as they can communicate, they can improve the situation. Rather than catastrophizing—“This is horrible, there’s no hope, we aren’t going to make it, I can’t stand this”— reassure yourself. “I can do this. I love my spouse and am willing to make changes to keep this marriage healthy. We’ll get through this and be stronger for it.”
  • Those who live with stonewallers should realize that they must back off before their spouse hits the point of disengaging out of self-defense. Both should try to de-escalate the argument by non-defensive communication. (See last week’s topic.)
  • Don’t give up. You may have thought you were avoiding fights by your lack of response, but you actually were avoiding resolution. Be the hero, the knight, but don’t hide behind a suit of armor. Reach out and connect.
  • When we most want to turn our backs is when we must turn our hearts back toward each other.


We must actively force away the four horsemen that destroy a chance at a happy marriage: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. If we don’t, we will find ourselves living parallel lives, disconnected from our spouses. Then, desperately lonely within our relationship, we run a risk of slipping into an affair in an attempt to build intimacy with someone else.

Bible verse to ponder:

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekial 36:26 RSV)

We will turn to another author in the next entry. Let’s review Gottman’s points:

  1. At a most basic level, we all want love and respect in a relationship.
  2. Complaints are specific and about one behavior. They can enhance a relationship if spouses are open to growth.
  3. Criticism, on the other hand, attacks the person.
  4. Contempt attacks the person with an intent to hurt.
  5. Defensiveness, or the poor-me stance, relinquishes our ability to accept the challenge of self improvement for the sake of the ones we love.
  6. De-escalate a disagreement by reaffirming your admiration for your spouse, interjecting healthy humor, touching affectionately, stepping back to make a comment about your current feelings, or trying to look at things from your spouse’s point of view.
  7. When we want to turn our backs (stonewall) is when we must keep turning back toward each other.


Please contact me if you have ideas for ways to make these entries more helpful.

Betty Arrigotti


Gottman, John M. & Silver, Nan (1995). Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: and How You Can Make Yours Last. Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group.

4 Minutes 4 Marriage – Defensiveness

Today’s topic is defensiveness, or taking on the attitude of innocent victim. If you’ve breezed through the last two weeks finding no criticism or contempt in your relationship, great! But defensiveness is harder to avoid. What is our reflex when we are criticized, attacked, or even confronted with a simple complaint? I know I have a natural tendency to defend myself. Either I entertain thoughts about “poor me” or ideas of righteous indignation.

Picture your frustrated (worried?) spouse who meets you at the door and snaps, “You should have called to let me know you were going to be so late.”

What’s your most likely tactic?

1. (Making excuses) “The phone is always busy here; I wouldn’t have gotten through anyway.” Variations include, “Work was so intense I didn’t get a spare minute.”

2. (Tit for tat) “You didn’t call me when you were late yesterday.” This is a grownup version of the playground retort, “I’m rubber and you’re glue; what bounces off me sticks to you.”

3. (Counterattack) “Couldn’t you wait until I at least get my coat off? What ever happened to ‘Welcome home?’”

4. (Non-defensive) “You’re right; I’m sorry if I worried you.”

(If you answered number 4 you already are adept at non-defensive listening and speaking.)

The problem with defensiveness is it exacerbates negativity. Rather than acknowledging a problem so that it can be worked out and improve the marriage, it derails any chance for a positive exchange. It stops constructive communication and leaves trouble unresolved. We want so badly to prove we are right that we sacrifice our own and our spouses’ happiness.

In relationships we tend to catch each other’s emotions. If someone walks in the house excited and happy, bursting with good news, chances are pretty good the whole family will benefit. But if someone comes home angry, it won’t be long before everyone is upset. Unfortunately, it seems negative emotions are dominant and positive are recessive. One bad mood can ruin the evening for everyone else.

It takes real self control not to become caught up in our spouse’s anger. My husband is amazing at this, and I wish I would learn from him. When people are angry with him and he doesn’t think he deserves it, he usually shrugs and figures they are having a bad day. When people are angry with me, I’m angry right back: “How dare they feel that way?” Obviously, my husband’s attitude is much healthier and serves to de-escalate rather than intensify situations.

If we get too used to believing we are innocent victims, taking on the “poor me” attitude, we cheat ourselves out of opportunities to improve our relationships. It’s much easier to retaliate or to pour out our woes to friends or family about how difficult our spouses are, than to take a deep breath, truly listen to our spouses’ perspectives, and admit we might be wrong.

After all, we only can change ourselves. We need to acknowledge our weaknesses and faults and try to improve our relationships by improving ourselves. That’s the stuff of heroes. Yes, our spouses have faults, but we aren’t perfect. We are never completely right, nor are they completely wrong. Marriage is worth admitting our mistakes and doing something about them. It might take a while for our spouses to notice, but they will.

Don’t give up. Dr. Gottman maintains that five positive interactions counter one negative one. That might feel something like “seven times seven,” but the benefits of a strong marriage reach from generation to generation. If in the heat of a disagreement we can’t step back for our spouses, let’s do it for our children’s sake.

Alternatives for enhancement: Turn your attention from yourself and focus on your spouse.

  1. Non-defensive listening:
  • Is your marriage cup half empty or half full? Practice dwelling on your partner’s good qualities, rather than their weaknesses, especially when you feel upset.
  • When your spouse is angry, don’t take his or her words personally. Instead, hear the anger as an effort at turning up the volume in order to be heard.
  • Listen to the emotions behind the words. Look to facial expressions for clues. Is my beloved angry, frustrated, afraid? Have I done something to cause this? What can I do to make him or her feel more secure?
  • Empathize. How would you feel if you were your spouse?
  1. Non defensive speaking:
  • Remember the simple, specific complaint, with the focus on your feelings rather than on blame. “I felt X when you Y. I’d rather you Z.” Complaints are much less aggressive than either criticism or contempt.
  • Stop an angry retort! This stops the negativity cycle before it spins out of control. Tone of voice can be very intimidating. Keep yours calm.
  • Let your answer show that you have heard the complaint, or that you understand the emotions that your actions caused. Apologize.
  •  Compliment. Fill that half empty/half full marriage cup to overflowing.


Bible verse to ponder: Wives be submissive to your husbands, {…} Husbands love your wives….

Ladies, did that verse make you feel defensive? (I won’t ask the gentlemen how it made them feel.) This paraphrase of 1 Peter 3:1,7 is a mine field. But surely wives are not excluded from the call to love their husbands. So, neither are husbands excluded from the call to be submissive to their wives. Let’s all submit to our spouses when they are upset with us. Let’s reject the victim role and focus on our spouses’ feelings and perspective instead of our own.

Peter goes on to say: “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind. Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing.” (1 Peter 3:8,9 RSV emphasis mine)

Thank you investing four (or five?) minutes in your relationship!

Betty Arrigotti


Gottman, John M. & Silver, Nan (1995). Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: and How You Can Make Yours Last. Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group.

4 Minutes 4 Marriage Eradicate Contempt

Greetings, 4Mers!

How was your week? Did you manage to stop yourself before a criticism left your lips? Did you restrain it to be a simple complaint like: “I felt (disappointed, frustrated, sad) when you (specific, one-time behavior)?”

Or did you find yourself more aware of others being critical? It’s always harder to see our own faults. (That’s one reason we have children—to point our failings out to us.)      😉

 We must keep working on reducing criticism because if it isn’t eradicated, it can deteriorate into contempt, John Gottman’s second step to the destruction of a marriage. Contempt differs from criticism in its intent to insult and hurt our spouse.

Think of how you looked at your spouse with such love when you exchanged vows. Can you picture that moment? Recapture the hope and excitement? We never dreamed we would want to hurt the one we chose to spend our life with. Most of the time we still don’t want to, but during a heated disagreement….

Remember the eye-rolling woman in last week’s entry? Such body language makes it clear we have lost our admiration for our partner and are feeling contempt. So do insults and name calling, hostile humor and sarcasm. And you know that particular tone of voice. Doesn’t it almost make a shiver run up your spine to imagine it?

We are in contempt’s grip when we can’t think of a single good thing to say about our spouses. Our admiration decays; our respect disintegrates. And what do we all need in our relationships? Yes, love and respect. So it’s absolutely vital to avoid any temptation to express contempt.

We’ve promised to love and honor, in good times and in bad. In the heat of an argument, we are in the midst of one of those bad times. That’s when we desperately need to show our loved one honor, in order to protect our marriage.

Thoughts to watch out for: “I’ll show him;” “Two can play at this game;” “She’ll need me before I’ll need her;” or any desire to slap our partner with our words.


1. Stop the angry retort that feels so justified; bite your tongue if you have to. Take a deep breath and exhale slowly. Try a gentle touch like taking his hand in yours, or break the cycle with good natured humor, or suggest you both take a break until you are cooler. But don’t ignore the issue that set off the disagreement. If you take a break, set a time when you will be ready to talk again.

The touch, humor, or break helps us calm ourselves. It stops the cycle of negativity that pulls us down during a disagreement. “She” says something that hurts him, so “he” strikes back verbally, then she escalates and hurts him worse. But if we do something to calm ourselves, we can halt the progression and reconnect.

Try to hear the fear behind the other’s attack, rather than the ugly words.

2. Another way to counteract contempt and replace negativity is to express honest admiration daily. It might be hard when contempt has blocked our awareness of the good qualities of our spouses, but remember, we all need love and respect. A simple “thank you”—for making dinner, running an errand, or taking out the garbage—can reopen communication. Better yet, a well-deserved compliment can do wonders for any of us. If we can set aside our negativity, we won’t need to look too hard for something to admire about our spouses, whether it be their appearance, their achievements at work, or the way they interact with our children.

3. Are you old enough to remember the old television quip, “The devil made me do it?” Look upon derogatory thoughts about your spouse as temptation that must be resisted. Whenever you have a negative thought, force yourself to counter it with three things you appreciate about him or her.

Sadly, if contempt is common in your relationship, your spouse may not trust your small gesture and continue to react with hostility at first, but persevere. Before long, you will be the one on the receiving end of encouragement.

God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13, RSV)

Thank you investing four minutes in your relationship!

Betty Arrigotti


Gottman, John M. & Silver, Nan (1995). Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: and How You Can Make Yours Last. Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group.

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