How to deal with stonewalling in a relationship

“The course of true love never did run smooth.” –William Shakespeare

This week we will look at the last of Dr. John Gottman’s ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,’ stonewalling.  Of the four horsemen, this is the most infuriating for most people to deal with.  Stonewalling is when one of the partners simply shuts down and refuses to engage with their partner.   For the partner trying to connect, the stonewalling reaction creates a sense of fear, anger or despair.  It is as if they have lost their partner.  Gottman has found that approximately 85% of the stonewallers in his research were males.  One of the interesting things he found with stonewalling is that when he talked to the people who were doing the stonewalling, their intent was simply to not to make things worse.  Many explained that they stayed quiet thinking that it would help the situation and their partner would calm down easier if they stopped responding.   

As humans, we are social creatures.  We are wired for connection.  In studies with infants, when a caregiver stops responding and simply stares at the baby, the baby becomes distressed.  Our body physically responds to the distress and we go into reactionary mode.  The antidote that Dr. Gottman recommends is to notify your partner that you need some time away and to then find something relaxing and enjoyable to do for at least 30 minutes.  This self-soothing is critical to calming our central nervous system and reactivating our mental ability to think and reason.  In one of Dr. Gottman’s studies he actually had couples get into an argument and when the partners were highly reactive he pretended that there was an issue with the equipment.  He instructed the couples not to talk until they got the equipment fixed.  They allowed the partners to get a drink or snack and read magazines during this time.  When they resumed, the couples were able to focus on the problem and come to a solution quickly.  He noted that time away, especially with stonewalling is critical for successful resolution of problems.

If these four horsemen sound all too familiar in your relationship, it does not mean that all is lost.  Becoming aware of the patterns and giving them a name is the first step to resolving them.  Help each other notice when the horsemen are in play and soon they will visit less often.

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