He’s doing it again. I can’t believe it. He knows it drives me crazy when he stops talking to me!
“Now you’re going to just sit there and pretend you don’t hear me? Is that really what you’ve become—can’t even stand up for yourself? Pathetic. That’s right, walk away like you always do. You’re such a loser.”
If he won’t talk to me, I’ll text him: “Why don’t you grow up and have a conversation like an adult? Is our marriage that unimportant to you?”
If that doesn’t do something, if he doesn’t answer that in the next minute, I will lose it!
Stonewalling occurs when one partner withdraws from an argument without letting his or her partner know. Stonewalling can be displayed passively with the absence of verbal and physical cues that one partner is still listening. It can also be overt, as is the case when one partner storms out of the room and slams the door without letting the other partner know if or when he or she will return. As with all of Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Relational Apocalypse, stonewalling, whether passive or overt, is one of the most destructive behaviors attributed to break-up and divorce.
The Flight of Stonewallers
Unlike the other Four Horsemen, criticism, contempt, and defensiveness, which appear to be tied to the instinctual fight response to conflict, stonewalling is linked to the flight response to conflict. When seen through this lens, stonewalling is not a sign of stubbornness or disrespect, it is evidence that someone is completely overcome, at a loss for words, and without any idea how to proceed in an argument. It is a desire to escape that leads people to stonewall.
Because of the emotionally intense nature of couple conflict, many partners fail to recognize stonewalling as a sign that someone is feeling not only angry, but also powerless, defenseless, and impotent. When partners fail to recognize stonewalling as a sign that their partner is overwhelmed, they tend to react by criticizing and pursuing when they should instead give their partner space. According to Susan Johnson, acclaimed relationship researcher and founder of emotionally focused couple therapy, the criticize-pursue response to the withdrawal of a partner (i.e., stonewalling) fails to meet the emotional needs of the couple, which creates and unproductive cycle that escalates conflict (Johnson, 2008).
Learning to Self-Soothe
“The antidote for stonewalling is self-soothing to reduce one’s own physiological arousal and staying emotionally engaged” (Gottman & Gottman, 2008, p. 146). This means that partners need to make a point to be aware of their physical and emotional states during conflict. The goal is to avoid becoming emotionally flooded and physically overwhelmed. Emotional flooding occurs when manageable feelings like frustration, sadness, and regret become rage, hopelessness, and shame. Signs of being physically overwhelmed include accelerated heart rate, heavy breathing, muscle tension (e.g., clenched jaw), flushed skin, and sweating. When people are on the cusp of being emotionally flooded and physically overwhelmed during an argument, they need to find ways to calm down, because fights between partners in these states too often involve stonewalling and the rest of The Four Horsemen.
Taking a time out can help partners avoid stonewalling. A time out is a time-limited break from a fight. The difference between a time out and stonewalling is that one verbally states the length of the break. Taking a time out should sound something like “I’m about to lose it! I don’t want to do that because I love you. I am going to take a 15 minute time out to calm down.” Time outs can last anywhere from several minutes to several hours, though I recommend that they not exceed 24 hours. Even though it is one partner who asks for a time out, it is the couple that benefits. Once a time out has been taken, both partners need to leave one another alone for the set time limit. Both partners should use relaxation techniques to calm their bodies. Both partners should spend some time thinking about other things (like how much they love one another) to ease their nerves.
It is important that partners honor the parameters of the time out and return to the discussion after it is over. If someone gets emotionally flooded and physically overwhelmed after resuming the conversation, another time out should be taken. The strategy here is to break a fight up into productive bursts when partners are able to manage their emotions and are relatively relaxed. If couples use time outs appropriately, they have a greater likelihood of resolving conflict because they will avoid the knock-down-drag-out, unproductive arguments that occur when couples are flooded and overwhelmed.
Breaking Down Walls
When a couple is committed to avoiding the use of stonewalling in addition to criticism, defensiveness, and contempt, fights feel different and become fertile ground for constructive discussion and growth in the relationship.
“Babe, I love you and I have to tell you that I need a break. I need a half hour. I am getting really upset and I don’t want to say anything I’ll regret.”
“Are you serious? I so don’t want to do that right now, but I believe you. Gosh, I wish you could keep talking because I want to figure this out. I love you, too, though, so I know that I have to give you some space.”
“I know. I’m sorry. Thanks for understanding. I will come back in 30 minutes and we’ll try again. Love you.”
“Love you, too.”