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Self-Care: Stonewalling Part II (The Research)

Today, we share some scientific specifics on stonewalling.
Ellie Lisitsa

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In this post, we introduced Stonewalling, Dr. Gottman’s fourth and final of the “Four Horsemen.” Here, we share some scientific specifics.

Dr. Gottman discovered that “Masters” of relationships maintain a 5:1 ratio of positivity to negativity during conflict discussions. Positive interactions include: displays of interest, affection, humor, empathy, and affirming body language (like eye contact and head nodding). While it may be intuitive that negative exchanges outweighing the positive is a sign of relationship trouble, Dr. Gottman’s 5:1 ratio also suggests that negativity is healthy as long as the ratio is maintained and the Four Horsemen are not present.

Cycles of non-constructive arguing and a lack of positive affect are major predictors of stonewalling, particularly predicative of stonewalling being used as an attempt to self-soothe or de-escalate, but backfiring and resulting in relationship deterioration. When these cycles grow more and more intense, and physiological arousal begins to skyrocket, the following dynamics emerge:

  • For both partners, there is: (a) a decrease in the ability to process information (reduced hearing, reduced peripheral vision, problems with shifting attention away from a defensive posture); (b) an increase in defensiveness; (c) a reduction in the ability for creative problem solving; and (d) a reduction in the ability to listen and empathize.
  • Men are consistently more likely to stonewall than women. They will withdraw emotionally from conflict discussions while women remain emotionally engaged. 85% of Dr. Gottman’s stonewallers were men.
  • When women do stonewall, it is quite predictive of divorce.
  • Men are more likely to rehearse distress-maintaining thoughts than women, which may prolong their physiological arousal and hyper-vigilance, often causing their partners to flare up in response, until both are brought to a point of emotional detachment and avoidance.
  • Male stonewalling is very upsetting for women, increasing their physiological arousal (things like increased heart rates, etc.) and intensifying their pursuit of the issue.

Many of these findings come from a 1985 study by Drs. Gottman and Levenson, called “Physiological and Affective Predictors of Change in Relationship Satisfaction,” which you can access here.

To summarize: stonewalling is bad! Here is a good rule: When the two of you are in conflict, and someone checks out, check in with them and take a break. In other words, when stonewalling starts, stop.

Stonewalling is both natural and deadly. It is a normal defense mechanism, and it goes something like this:

If I can just shut it out, if I can pretend not to see it or hear it, the problem won’t be there anymore. If I can just get through this, it will poof and disappear.

If you tend to avoid conflict by thinking along these lines, something else may poof and disappear: your relationship. But don’t panic! There’s no cause for alarm, because there will be no poofing or disappearing if you know just one thing: a healthy way to cope with the urge to stonewall and emotionally withdraw. That way is physiological self-soothing, which you can read more about here.

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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.

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