Happy Monday! Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we continue our series devoted to Dr. Gottman’s Four Horsemen with the last, but certainly not least, horseman: Stonewalling.

If you’re more of a visual learner, we have provided you with a short clip with an explanation of stonewalling from Dr. Gottman, as well as an example of what it looks like. (skip to :56)

Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction, shutting down and closing themselves off from the speaker because they are feeling overwhelmed or physiologically flooded. Rather than confronting the issue, someone who is stonewalling will be totally unresponsive, making evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive behaviors. 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.

Trying to communicate with someone who is acting in this way can be frustrating, and if the stonewalling continues, completely infuriating.

When you are making every effort to address a problem, whether you are attempting to talk about something that is upsetting you, explain your feelings about an ongoing area of conflict, or try to reach a resolution –  and your partner is pretending that you aren’t there – you are likely to reach a level of upset or anger so high that you psychologically and emotionally “check out” as well.

The first part of the antidote to experiencing this extreme unpleasantness is to STOP.

The second step is to practice physiological self soothing.

If you learn to do these things when your conversations become fights and tempers flare, you can keep your relationship from experiencing repeated and deeply destructive stress and save yourself and your partner from going nuts.

Sound promising? Read on.

When to stop:
When things escalate to a level where you sense yourself reaching your boiling point (that feeling of a kettle whistling inside of you, and steam ready to come out of your ears), it’s time to take yourself off the flame! The same goes for your partner.

Let each other know when you’re feeling overwhelmed, and say that you need to take a break. This break should last at least twenty minutes, since it will take that much time for your bodies to physiologically calm down.

How to self-soothe:
It is crucial that during this time you avoid thoughts of righteous indignation (“I don’t have to take this anymore!”) and innocent victimhood (“Why is he always picking on me?”). Spend your time doing something soothing and distracting, like listening to music, reading a book, or taking a walk around the block.

The Four Horsemen typically come as a sequence of interactions that start with criticism and spill over into defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. As Dr. Gottman emphasizes in hisNew York Times bestselling book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, the really important thing to keep in mind is that even in happy, stable, and successful marriages and relationships, the four horsemen all occur. No couple is perfect! The difference is that in those marriages they don’t occur as frequently, and when they do, those couples are more effective at repairing them.

Look forward to our posts this Wednesday and Friday, in which we will delve further into our discussion of stonewalling, flooding, and physiological self-soothing. In the meantime, join us on Facebook for daily relationship tips and reminders!

More in The Four Horsemen
The Four Horsemen: Stonewalling
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.

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  • The Wife Character

    Stonewalling is not always a subconscious effort to self sooth. It is also a tool used to take control and cause psychological harm. It passive aggressively says the stonewaller is more important than the stonewalled. It can and is done intentionally. It is, even on its own, a massive indication that a romantic pairing is not a meeting of equals.

    • Daria

      Agree. Powerful point.

    • Lorilu

      I absolutely agree with your point that stonewalling is a control maneuver. It is a tool the stonewaller uses to say that the stonewaller is the dominant figure in the relationship, and the stonewalled will get no recognition unless they knuckle under.

      Expressions of anger by the stonewalled seem only to make the stonewaller more implacable.

    • licoricecat

      Stonewalling happens usually when extreme bullying occurs and i give weeks of space, continue to be kind like put Christmas decorations up, curtains in boyfriends apartment and then kindness stonewalls me and then breakup. He had Parkinson’s and depressed so I tried to cheer him and he sent a stranger to sggreddively drop off my things at public restaurant, 13 year relationship, never came in, was 2 faced and I directly was honest but not mean along way when his friends were churches that banned me but stonewalling me and won’t tell me me why for years and gossiping to all their associations to also ban me. It is False rumors that pastors are spreading and he continues to o attend these churches and I have never met any of his friends or family…but one of them dropped my things off at restaurant while he sat in car

      • licoricecat

        I had a Christmas gift and one was an enlarged picture of him and grandkids that i used of his pictures to enlarge. When I went outside to deliver his gift of 5 seconds, this man felt justified to run over my feet intentionally screaming at me shouting he wants nothing to do with you! When last I saw him I put up decorated tree and all lights and helped him throw out garbage that causes sickness from Fumes of garbage and none of friends or family have been to his home, he is a hoarder…but he cherishes their friendship above me. I have helped him with everything with me firmly motivating minimal participation always giving my leftovers and helping him in all areas, I am medical person, while he excludes me from meeting his friends and family 13 yrs. These friends are people that have banned me from my church church of 25 yrs that I brought him to but kept him and caught division. They are Mega non denominational churches on TV that preach Gods Love but do not live it and have caused the boyfriend division who has stop,walled me, used all my private family issues to live a double life but his loyalties lay with these churches not me. These people do not even know what inside of home looks like because he would never ask for help. I have loved him and tried helping him but he refuses all help. He stonewalled me when I helped him and all arguments were text yo him because he refused yo answer phone. Now he can further gossip to churches us,g my text arguments. He was a cheater, lied, twisted things, …my arguments were usually that he complained about health issues but refused answers. He needed hesri,g aids so he could hear what I really said and not get angry what I never said and he refused to put them in…simple solution but he did not think enough of our relations,ship to resolve a simple solution while he was with me..He knows personal family issues and he has police and churches in his back pocket and knows about agencies that bully me that he could easily divulge personal issues to. He has got police in back pocket, their ce phone numbers and has used them to arrest me when he physically abused me and they protect him along with mega churches who white these cops as their security and usually evolve from regal theaters who protect their tenants at regal.

        His church friend was violent as a handed him a personal photo gift bought way before Christmas. I loved this man unconditionally, but am a true Christian who is honest with love and stands for justice and will not lie or dude with liars or bullies, so I speak up and my spirit clashes with church people and agencies who bully and lie. These mega churches that cover for eachothers gossip and lies and give to charities but can’t love the isolated and hurting cannot handle my spirit of truth. When I am just walking in any of these mega churches that have stonewalled me and attacked my character to all their associations including charities ….but won’t talk about it or work it out, because of their serious lies….my boyfriend has fueled their lies with personal family private things he learned about me throughout our 13 yrs relationship. He said he still goes to churches that spread false gossip so he could help talk to them. Instead his loyalties lie with church who have never helped him where he needs it…his home. He puts on a false front. These churches are in business for quick numbers because numbers mean money and skills and volunteers for free who will use their tents to bring people into the church for loyalty to them not God…HOW COULD CHURCHES THAT EXCLUDE AND BAN AND REFUSE TO CLEARLY NOT TALK ABOUT AND STONEWALL ALL FORMS OF COMMUNICATION BE OF GOD?

        What would Jesus do? Love and Feed my Sheep and sometimes that means getting involved in their issues and guiding them and that takes time. These churches want quick, easy money and not relationships, so they cut people out because they only want people to give money and talents and they lead anyone with any issues even not in their control to be excluded and that spirit is not of God. It is judgmental and it excludes and alienates good godly people who have issues and is the great LIE that world sees so they won’t go to these churches because they sense the Lie and they stay away.

        TRUTH IS…GOD LOVES YOU WHERE U R AT AND WILL HELP YOU ANYWHERE ONCE YOU ASK. DEPEND TIME WITH GOD, BE HONEST AND DON’T BELIEVE A LIE. GOD WILL HELP YOU IF U ASK FOR DIRECTION AND READ AND OBEY HIS WORD. YOU DON’T NEED A CHURCH CLIQUE TO FIT INTO FOR GOD TO LOVE YOU. TEST THE SPIRITS. READ THE EYES …THE EYES ARE THE WINDOWS TO THE SOUL. PROVERBS…KNOW GOD ALONE AND SEEK TRUTH AND OBEY PROMPTS OF GOD.

  • spritrig

    Stonewalling can be paralysis and fear, it can be the response of someone who is constantly defeated, in a no win situation, where any response will bring contempt and punishment. It’s a response to being trapped. It’s tail between legs from abuse.

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  • PunkFamous

    These articles are very helpful. I am a woman who stonewalls when arguments go down. It’s not a power-play by any means, but a kind of shut down and implosion exactly as these articles describe. Much to the chagrin of my guy, who is a lot more expressive and could talk his way through anything.

    The STOP and take a break is exactly the right thing to do. The tips for calming down and self-soothing are great, too. Allow all those overwhelming thoughts and emotions to cool off, then regroup with your partner once you feel coherent again. Thanks for the advice.