Self-Care: Stonewalling Part I

Next time you sense yourself reaching boiling point, know that it’s time to take yourself off the flame.

Next time you sense yourself reaching boiling point, know that it’s time to take yourself off the flame.

Here we’ll tackle the final of Dr. Gottman’s horsemen in our series on The Four Horsemen and Self-Care. Welcome to stonewalling.

Stonewalling occurs when one partner withdraws from an interaction. They stop responding, shut down, and close them selves off from the other. The stonewalling partner, feeling overwhelmed by a fight or conflict discussion, may engage in evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or partaking in obsessive behaviors. Anything goes, really. Anything that allows for that sweet feeling of escape.

That feeling of escape is, of course, short-lived, and ultimately followed by even greater strife.

It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable “out,” but when it does, it frequently becomes a habit – a habit as destructive as it is natural.

We all know how completely infuriating and painful it can be to try to communicate with someone who is stonewalling.

When we’re trying to share a hurt or ask for help in confronting a persistent problem, only to realize that the “listener” is pretending we aren’t there, we’re likely to feel discouraged. In fact, we’re likely to become so discouraged – or upset, or angry – that we psychologically and emotionally “check out” as well.

How can we end this vicious cycle? It’s actually pretty straightforward:

Next time you sense yourself reaching boiling point (that feeling of a kettle whistling inside of you, steam ready to come out of your ears), know that it’s time to take yourself off the flame. The same goes for your partner.

1.  The first part of the antidote to experiencing this unpleasantness is to STOP the discussion. Let each other know when you’re feeling overwhelmed, and say that you need to take a break. Attempts to continue will not make productive headway for either of you, but rather will intensify your shared conflict and emotional distress.*

2.  The second step is to practice physiological self soothing – for at least twenty minutes, since it will take that much time for your bodies to physiologically calm down.**

By practicing these two steps and liberally applying mindfulness to your interactions, you can greatly reduce the damage of this kind of chronic stress to your relationship – and save yourself and your partner from going nuts.

Sound promising? Read on. This post is devoted to some scientific specifics from Dr. Gottman’s research.

* In one of our longitudinal research studies, we interrupted arguing couples after fifteen minutes and told them we needed to adjust the equipment. We asked them not to talk about their issue, but just to read magazines for half an hour. When they started talking about their issue again, their heart rates were significantly lower and their interaction more positive and productive.

** According to Dr. Gottman, “the major sympathetic neurotransmitter norepinephrine doesn’t have an enzyme to degrade it so it has to be diffused through blood… this takes twenty minutes or more in the cardiovascular system.”

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.