On Monday we introduced Stonewalling, Dr. Gottman’s fourth and finalhorseman. It is our goal this week to help you understand this particularly destructive communication style and learn to manage it. Today, we will begin by sharing some cold, hard facts. 

As we have written previously on The Gottman Relationship Blog, 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.

(Note: 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. Attempts to continue will not make productive headway for either of you, but rather will intensify your shared conflict and emotional distress.

You’ve probably realized this by now. We’ve all had experiences trying (so hard!) to speak and not being heard. What’s important to take away from this posting is an awareness that 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 we will explain in our blog post this Friday!

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Ellie Lisitsa

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.