According to John Gottman, a leading psychologist in the field of marital stability and relationship analysis, there are 4 behaviours which predict whether a couple will split or remain together. Gottman called those 4 behaviours The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and they are: criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. Ranked second as the behaviour predicting divorce and separation, is stonewalling.
Stonewalling usually occurs when a couple is having an argument – its triggers are disagreements, accusations, and unmet expectations expressed by the partner.
Then one of the partners shuts out emotionally, becomes silent and refuses to clarify their feelings or desires anymore. Becoming a stone wall usually leaves the other partner frustrated, helpless, angry, and blocked out without the option for achieving relief through talking about the difficulties and eventually finding a solution.
Stonewalling is different from just being silent to take a break from a conversation or sort out your thoughts.
Why? Because In stonewalling there are several painful elements that the ordinary silence does not contain:
- contempt for your partner’s opinion
- a lack of respect for their position
- a desire to punish them with silence for not thinking or saying what you would ideally want them to.
Stonewalling is a passive, impenetrable refusal to interact with another, to discuss and take responsibility for what is being expressed by each participant in the argument.
It is a way to withhold understanding and affection which usually makes the other party feel cut off, isolated, guilty and generally wrong.
You can easily spot a stonewaller by several phrases they use with startling frequency – especially when there is an argument or disagreement:
- I want to be left alone.
- Do whatever you want.
- I don’t want to talk anymore/ right now.
- Just shut up.
- End of conversation.
- You are stressing me out.
- I am done here.
Unlike the other 3 toxic behaviors – criticism, defensiveness, and contempt – stonewalling is likely to be employed far more often by men than by women. This can be explained with the fact that in most of our cultures men are expected to be firm, unwavering, “strong”. Sometimes when a man is feeling threatened by the consequences of an argument, or feels that his pride is at stake for not having met the expectations of his significant other, the same men will withdraw from the argument and will shut out.
Stonewalling is actually an attempt to tackle arguments – to preserve the artificial harmony, to not say even more hurtful things, to abstain from angry words, to restrain one’s own fear of being disliked or abandoned by cutting the other off.
So if you happen to date a stonewaller, it is constructive to bear in mind that stonewalling is not only a selfish way employed by the other to punish you through disengagement. It is also their way of keeping the relationship intact. Sometimes it is the only thing a person can do during quarrels – especially when they come from an abusive background and they have seen what expressing your anger can do.
To be on the receiving end of stonewalling is a different experience for men and women. When a woman shuts out on a men, he would feel frustrated because her silence would block the ways to his aim – to achieve peace and to resolve the conflict.
Nevertheless, when a man stonewalls a woman that is a more painful experience. From a psychological point of view, women are prone to feel isolated and abandoned when their beloved men shuts them out with silence. For a woman the pain of feeling excluded and rejected by a man feels as painful as humiliation feels to a man – like a punishment that strips one of their worth and leaves them to digest the pain in isolation.
According to Gottman, stonewalling is a behavior that can predict a couple’s separation because it leaves important (and otherwise tackable!) problems undiscussed. Thus challenges in the relationship are left unaddressed, and which is worse – tension is building up within the stonewalled partner. They feel cut off from some of the main sources of happiness in a relationship: to feel understood and supported, to receive love unconditionally and to be free to express your thoughts and feelings freely – without walking on eggshells out of fear that the other person will withdraw the moment things become turbulent.
What is the antidote to stonewalling then?
Gottman says there are 2 steps to tackle the stonewalling of a partner.
The first step is… to stop.
When an argument reaches its boiling point and accusations are thrown around and nobody is listening to the other, it’s time to step aside from the battle. Gottman points out that this doesn’t mean to become a stonewaller yourself, but to express that you’re feeling overwhelmed and to withdraw from the heat to take a break and come back to it when you are cooled off, ready to listen and speak with respect and vulnerability instead of competing to be right.
This break should take at least 20 minutes. After the break you don’t have to be sulky or silent. Instead you have to return to the conversation and try to understand the other, and express your feelings too – without showing contempt or making accusations.
The second step is to learn how to self-soothe.
Self-soothing is a very important skill for those willing to feel less frustrated and hurt – not only when stonewalled, but in many other painful situations involving relationships and communication.
In order to do that, you have to let go of the temptation to feel 1) right and indignant; 2) feel like an innocent victim always picked on by others. As a good start for learning how to self-soothe, Gottman suggests to try something distracting, like listening to music, reading a book, or taking a walk around the block – anything enjoyable that will bring you back to your own center. Because it is impossible to remain calm and whole when somebody else is in your center and you are shifting the responsibility for feeling whole to them rather than taking it yourself.