This is the fifth article on communication in marriages and relationships. We once more focus on the destructive patterns in dealing with conflict and find a way forward in addressing them.

We are again reminded that conflict is inevitable in all close relationships, also that we are friends not enemies; we must check how we approach difficult situations as well as trust our own ability to respond constructively.

We have so far discussed four DESTRUCTIVE conflict patterns that tend to escalate and therefore deteriorate the relationship, namely blaming and criticism as well as self-defense and the conflict dance. In this article we are looking at defending ourselves in a conflict situation and the so-called “conflict dance”. In this article we attend to three more destructive patterns, namely the so-called “freeze or flee” response, stonewalling and contempt.


This, in communication, is a reaction to a perceived or real threat. In this pattern of attempting to manage conflict, no one is making any move to address the issue at hand. They might be aware that something is bothering them, but they’ve decided to not bring it up. Couples will avoid conflict even though they both live with feelings of uncertainty and loneliness. Since they aren’t talking to each other, they often internalize the conversation or talk to others about their problems. This pattern is often the result of the other patterns happening repeatedly and, in a sense, giving up on trying to solve issues together.

In a conflict situation sometimes, our bodies may detect the start of a conversation about something personal or hurtful like it would any other threat. This means that our body will release stress hormones, and we will experience a racing heart. The parts of our brain responsible for our rational thinking or relational behaviors go offline. This means we go into survival mode —freezing or fleeing—and we lose our rational thinking and communication skills, like problem-solving, humor, and affection.

Joan: Why did you have to stay out so late last night? You did not even take the trouble to phone me and let me know!

Len: (looking at Joan with a straight face) … sorry.


Len: You are quiet this morning. What’s wrong?

Joan: No, it’s nothing …

What to do:

When couples are stuck in this pattern, it’s likely after a significant amount of time being stuck in the other patterns mentioned earlier. As the other methods proved unsuccessful, they decided that it is longer worth it to address matters of concern. Individuals in these couples are usually feeling very hurt and will probably have built up resentment, frustration, and hopelessness with each other. To work through this pattern, couples will need to address past hurts to clear the air and work on building up skills that help them to both feel safe accessing their vulnerability with each other.


Stonewalling is exactly as it sounds – when one partner in the conversation starts to act like a stone wall – he or she does not respond to what is said. They will notice that their partner looks away, remains silent through most of the conversation, and perhaps even crosses their arms across their chest. They give the impression of being annoyed, which may be a defense mechanism, but their lack of response shuts down any form of further conversation. As for the person experiencing the stonewalling, it might seem like their partner doesn’t care about them.

For the person stonewalling, it’s likely they are in a state of physiological flooding. Physiological flooding happens when the body detects a threat.

Joan: Why did you have to stay out so late last night? You did not even take the trouble to phone me and let me know!

Len ignores Joan and leaves the room or continues watching the TV or starts doing something.


Len: As if you really care!


Len: I am not going to have this discussion.

What to do:

When someone is physiologically flooded, it is not possible to have a productive conversation. That is why it’s important for both people in the conversation to agree to take a break when they notice that flooding is present. It takes about 20 minutes for the stress hormones to dump out of the bloodstream.

During the break, the flooded party can:

  • Practice deep breathing;
  • Go on a walk;
  • Do a soothing activity, such as reading, painting, etc.

To self-soothe, you need space from the conflict, so try not to continue to think about, write about it, or call your best friend to talk about it.

Then, it is important that the person who took the break comes back to the conversation when calm. This return builds trust within the relationship.


Contempt is the most dangerous of all the styles and is understood to be the biggest contributor to divorce. At minimum, it is very mean, and at worst, it becomes emotional abuse. Contempt is criticism amplified because it takes a one-up position of superiority. When people have contempt, they express their discontent by utilizing shame and mean-spirited sarcasm to put someone down. You can notice contempt on someone’s face when they move one side of their face up—think of it as a “half disgust” face.

Len, complaining I am so tired at the end of the day, and it is so frustrating for me to walk into a sink full of dishes.

Len criticizing, I am so tired, and you never care about that. You always leave the dishes in the sink.

Len with contempt: Oh of course, I walk into a filthy house after a long day. What else would I expect from someone like you? I should have known when I met your family how lazy you’d be.

Contempt is developed through gradually building up resentment over time. Some people learn to be contemptuous because they saw their parents or carers addressing each other with contempt during arguments and conflict. Because of this, it’s their default mode they go to when they are upset. For others, contempt has developed within the relationship in response to long-standing resentment or betrayal earlier in the relationship which has not been meaningfully addressed.

What to do:

Rather than utilizing contempt, you’ll need to work on building new communication skills to discuss your upset feelings. Specifically, you’ll need to learn to talk about yourself rather than the other person when in conflict. The goal is to be able to use gentle start-up (discussed with criticism above), but at first you might just focus on being able to narrate your inner world instead of attacking the other person.

That might sound like:

“Right now, I can feel myself being so angry. I want to say so many angry things to you, but I know it won’t go well. I really need us to figure out how to fix this.”

Author: Peter Schultz