In Wednesday’s posting on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we promised to follow our scientific specifics on stonewalling with a healthy alternative! The antidote to stonewalling is self-soothing.

The first step to fighting stonewalling? 

Stop the discussion. 

If you keep going, you’ll find yourself one step farther down the relationship cascades that lead to separation. The only reasonable strategy is to let your partner know that you’re feeling flooded and need to take a break. It’s crucial that during this time you avoid thoughts of righteous indignation and innocent victimhood. 

The second step to fighting stonewalling?

Practice physiological self-soothing. 

See some of our research on physiological self-soothing summarized hereMany 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: 

The Practice of Physiological Self-Soothing: 

1. 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. This can be a word or a physical motion (be creative!) or simply raising both hands into a stop position. Come up with your own. If you choose a ridiculous signal, you may find that its mere use helps to diffuse tension. For more about flooding, refer to our post from The Research series on Physiological Self-Soothing here

2.  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. It may be a beautiful forest you explored on a trip. It may be a dreamscape. 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. 

3.  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. As in Eastern practices – from yoga to contemplative meditation – you may find yourself calmer and more centered if you stop for a moment, and allow the noise around you to temporarily fade away.

4.  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.
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We think taking a break of this sort is so important that we schedule this exercise into the conflict-resolution section of every Art & Science of Love Workshop that we run. Self-soothing 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 pursuit of your passions), and watch the frequency and intensity of fights between the two of you drop dramatically. 

Remember: your ability to self-soothe is one of your most important skills. Practicing it can help you not only in romantic relationships, but in all other areas of your life.


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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.