The most effective way to counteract stonewalling in your relationship is a healthy alternative called physiological self-soothing. But first, you both need to stop the discussion using the “time out” signal that you’ve determined works for both of you. If you keep going, you’ll find yourself exploding at your partner, or imploding and stonewalling, neither of which will get you anywhere other than one step farther down the relationship cascade that leads to separation.
The most reasonable strategy is to let your partner know that you’re feeling flooded and need a break. It’s crucial that during this time you avoid thoughts of righteous indignation and innocent victimhood. Many people find that the best approach to self-soothing is to focus on calming the body through a meditative technique. Here’s a simple one:
Steps to Physiological Self-Soothing
- Think of a neutral signal that you and your partner can use in a conversation to let each other know when one of you feels flooded with emotion (for more about flooding, refer to here). This can be a word or a physical motion, e.g. “Time-out!” or simply raising both hands into a stop position. Come up with your own. If you choose a funny signal, you may find that the very use of it helps begin to diffuse tension.
- When you have moved apart to take your break, attempt the following: imagine a place that makes you feel calm and safe. A sacred space where nothing can touch you. It may be a place you remember from childhood — a cozy corner you read in, your old bedroom, or a friend’s house. As you imagine yourself in this sanctuary, lose yourself in the peace of mind that it brings you. Meditating on a haven in your imagination can be a perfect, relaxing break from a difficult conversation.
- Practice focusing on your breath: it should be deep, regular, and even. Usually when you get flooded, you either hold your breath a lot or breathe shallowly. So, inhale and exhale naturally. You may find yourself calmer and more centered if you stop for a moment and allow the noise around you to temporarily fade away.
- Tense and relax parts of your body that feel tight or uncomfortable. Feel the warmth and heaviness flow out of your limbs. Take your time. This technique is similar to a focus on breathing, but you may find one or the other preferable. Work with either of these techniques to feel your stress flow away.
Taking a break of this sort is so important that you schedule this exercise into the conflict-resolution section of every Gottman workshop. Soothing themselves makes couples better able to work on their conflicts as a team rather than as adversaries.
Think of these as starting points for the creation of an island of peace within yourself. You can return to this place again and again, whenever you like.
Your (and your partner’s) mental health play a large role in determining the health of your relationship. Don’t forget to take care of yourselves. Devote enough time and energy to self-care (getting enough sleep, nutrition, exercise, time for the pursuit of your passions), and watch the frequency and intensity of fights between the two of you drop dramatically.
Remember: the ability to self-soothe is one of the most important skills you can learn. Practicing it can help you not only in romantic relationships, but in all other areas of your life.