The Four Horseman of the Marital Apocalypse

Part Two

In a previous post I discussed the first two Horsemen; criticism and defensiveness. Here are the last two Horsemen: stonewalling and contempt.

Stonewalling or with-drawling:Stonewalling is more common in men than in women. The stonewaller tends to ignore his partner and does not give any signs of responsiveness, this usually only makes his spouse even angrier. This behavior tends to enter marriages long after the honeymoon stage. It is a false way to “keep the peace.”

I know with my ex, the more he withdrew, the more he stonewalled, the more he denied there were problems, the more hurt and angry I became. I began to feel like there wasn’t any passion left. I could not get him to make love to me but even worse he could not muster up enough passion and heat to fight with me. It was like he accepted defeat, waved the white flag but forgot to tell me.

I think we both ended up with-drawling. We got comfortable in our exit strategies and took comfort in them. He would watch sports or play xbox. He seemed to always be working or on the phone about work. I would read or write, watch tv in the other room or play with the kids. Soon we kept in close proximity because it was expected. I wanted to be near him but at the same time I resented him for not giving me what I needed.

I can only speculate that perhaps he to felt the same way. That he loved me and wanted to be near but the the wounds inflicted by each other would creep into the consciousness and contempt and discord grew.

Contempt: Contempt is a feeling of disdain or scorn, an open disrespect or willful disobedience. Contempt attacks your partner’s sense of self with the intention to insult or psychologically abuse him/her. Contempt can include; insults or name calling, hostile humor, sarcasm or mockery. As well as contemptuous body language and tone of voice: sneering, rolling your eyes or curling your upper lip.

I am sure my ex would proclaim loudly that I used this horseman on a regular basis, mind you not always just when it came to communicating issues. He was forever telling me that with the educational background in relationships I had, that I tended to talk down to him. He of course would say this as he rolled his eyes at me like he was a teenager being disciplined.

Have you ever seen the movie; Saving Silverman? My ex would always joke that he felt like he was, “In therapy with Judith.” Like he was being counseled by a one sided biases that had an agenda. Knowing what I know simply meant I was more keyed into the signs that things were going sideways but he refused to hear or see. I would get so frustrated at his refusal that there were issues that needed to be addressed.

I think I did become very contemptuous towards the end. I was tired! I was tired of not being heard. I was tired of not being seen. I was tired of feeling like I was the only one who cared if the marriage worked or not. I was tired of not being taken seriously. I was exhausted at the end. My heart was tattered and torn. I was unsure how to keep going. The more I pressed for us to seek help the more he kept stonewalling and denying there were issues at all.

Finally when faced on the side of the road with proof staring right into his face there was no more room for denial, just volatile contempt from both of us. I think years of issues that had never been addressed spilled forth. Things I never knew even bothered him because he would not utter a word but hold it all in.

My contempt had an outward presence where as I think his was guarded and held on tightly within himself. Both ended up being equally damaging. To me it is so devastating to know that there was a way to fix things. I did not want to throw away twelve years of marriage. We had survived so much; moves across the country, ups and downs, kids, mortgage, and even job loss. To me, there was a lot of good still left to rebuild on but you cannot make the other person do it if their will and heart are not in it.

I hope Gottman's Four Horsemen have given you some insight in to your relationship. With new found respect for each other and the help of a counselor your marriage is salvageable. The biggest factor in turning things around is; a genuine willingness to work towards a resolution. Both parties have to be willing to be raw and honest with each other because a partnership or a marriage takes work. It is a constant work in progress. You never stop growing or learning or evolving, when you do there is only atrophy and death.

Try a few of the following tips to help stay on point and communicate what you are feeling in a more positive way.

1.Learn to make specific complaints and requests. When X happened, I felt Y, I want/need Z.
2. Learn to communicate consciously by speaking the unarguable truth.
3. Learn to listen generously, listen for accuracy, and with empathy. Listen for what your partner really wants.
4. Validate your partner. Let your partner know what makes sense to you about what they are saying; let them know you understand what they are feeling, see through their eyes.
5. Shift to appreciation. (5 positive interactions are necessary to compensate for one negative interaction)
6. Claim responsibility: “What can I learn from this?” & “What can I do about it?”
7. Re-write your inner script. Notice when you are thinking critical, contemptuous or defensive thoughts.
8. Practice getting undefended; allowing your partner’s utterances to be what they really are: just thoughts and puffs of air and let go of the stories/exaggerations that you are making up.


Gottman, John M. The Marriage Clinic, NY: WW Norton & Company; 1999.

Canary D., Cody M., & Manusov V. Interpersonal Communication: A Goals-Based Approach, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s; 2003.


cjn said...

Once again, I am totally stalked by these horseman...I really appreciate your tips at the end and intend to pull out a few of them and put them in my memory...

I also think it is wonderful how you put your own personal stories along with the horseman to help give more detail and understanding to what you were trying to say... this is a very well written article.

Fruit Taster said...

I find it a very interesting topic that couples, who obviously both have an interest at improving the relationship so they can stay together, end up resenting and showing contempt toward each other. "Feeling tired of trying" is a statement that I can identify with. I have thought that sometimes, and it's so easy to fall into the trap of mocking and rolling your eyes. I have done it, and I only ended up making things worse.

But what to do is the one thousand dollar question. My parents separated and didn't even try counseling. Why? Because one believed it would be good to try and the other didn't. That's also what happened to me with my ex. I ended up going to counseling alone, which in itself spoke volumes on what I should really be doing.

When faced with a problem, any kind of problem, we all have our own way of tackling it and our own hopes for a resolution. One goal of counseling, as I see it, is to get the two persons in the couple to agree on what resolution they're working toward. Once this is agreed on, then it's relatively easy to row in the same direction. But finding this agreement is the real part of the work.

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