Stonewalling, Defensiveness, & More: Argument Tactics That Ruin Relationships

A woman stonewalling her boyfriend in the middle of an argument at a coffeeshop.

The skills we need for relationships aren’t taught in school like math or English, and they’re not always intuitive. It’s easy to be nice to our partners when things are going well, but less so when there’s conflict. When something’s wrong, we often default to behaviors that shield us from further negative interactions. And while these tactics, may seem like the best course of action in the moment, it can damage a relationship over time. And left unhandled, they can bring about the end a relationship.

But like math or English, relationship skills can be learned. And even behaviors that have become instinctual can be overcome if you’re aware of them. To help you get a better understanding of how negative ways of  dealing with conflict that can ruin a relationship, here’s a breakdown of some of the most common tactics that can be harmful.

Stonewalling
Stonewalling and the next three communication breakdowns listed here are what Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute refers to as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for relationships. Stonewalling is shutting down during an uncomfortable conversation or fight, so that your partner will eventually tire out and leave you alone. It’s bad because your partner is unable to resolve the issue. As a result, they  feel unheard and won’t understand how you feel about the situation.

The way to beat this is simple—talk. If you do need some time to cool off, tell your partner you need 10 to 20 minutes. But when the allotted time is up it’s up to you to come back to your partner and finish the conversation.

Criticism
Everybody’s a critic, and nobody likes being criticized. So don’t do it. That’s not to say you can’t confront your partner about specific things, but don’t ascribe judgements about their character to the behavior they’re exhibiting. The difference between a complaint and criticism is that a complaint addresses a specific issue, criticism admonishes whom they are as a person. It’s a subtle but important distinction to make.

Instead, when you’re upset by your partner address the specific action. Explain why that issue made you upset without making it a character flaw.

Contempt
Contempt is when we respond to our partners with malice. It takes the form of mocking or pointed sarcasm, often with plausible deniability. It’s aim is to make your partner feel small to gain a power advantage in the relationship. It often arises when you have deep-seated negative feelings about your partner or the relationship. Needless to say this behavior is a terrible way to communicate and spells disaster for your relationship if not handled quickly.

The best way to stop being contemptuous is to acknowledge your partner for their good qualities. Begin to nurture intimacy again. Remember there are reasons that you once enjoyed (and can enjoy again) being together. Verbalize your feelings and needs to your partner. It’s important to speak on these issues. Your contempt has likely already done damage and will have to be mended by open loving communication.

Defensiveness
Defensiveness is about more than having a disagreement with your partner’s complaints—it’s a refusal to consider the validity of their claims. Defensiveness takes personal fault and redirects it onto the partner, which results in a communication stalemate.

To fix this tactic, let your guard down and consider what your partner has to say. This doesn’t mean that every complaint levied is your fault, but own up and apologize when it’s due. We all make mistakes, and it doesn’t have to be embarrassing to admit to them.

Withholding Sex
This is pretty common when there’s a sustained residual anger or a lack of intimacy in the relationship. Withholding sex is used as a tactic to to communicate to your partner that they upset you, often without the accompanying explanation of what they did to upset you.

The way to get past this is to, well, have sex, but it can be difficult if the relationship wounds are still raw. Start with small touches. Then incorporate kissing and embraces into your routine when you see your partner. This doesn’t need to occur all at one time. Take the time to get comfortable. Also, express to your partner the reason you were upset and felt the need to withhold sex. Work with an eye towards ironing things out. You’ll be happy campers in no time.

Venting to Your Friends
This one is a grey area, because there are times when you might need support from your friends. However, by and large, you want to avoid badmouthing your partner to your friends. Friends will always take your side and it could cause them to dislike your partner if they’re constantly who you go to when you need to complain.

It may feel nice to use your friends as your therapists, but the person you need to talk to to solve your problem is your partner. Talk to your partner and look for a solution, but don’t badmouth them to others during that process. It doesn’t benefit anyone.

Being in a committed relationship isn’t easy, but part of what makes it worthwhile is that it takes work. Nobody is asking you to be the perfect person in every fight and during every conflict, but it’s important to try. Remember, the best way to solve a problem is to open up, not to shrink away. In any relationship, upsets are natural. Being a slave to your emotions and operating in default is a way to kill your relationship, not to live, so be open and be present.

Alex Bocknek

Alex Bocknek is the senior editor of The Date Mix and works at Zoosk, the online dating service. He’s also a recovering music critic and an aspiring fiction writer (probably lost) on the way to an independent bookstore near you. He can be found occasionally musing about politics, philosophy, and love in the modern world.

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