Over the past several months we’ve been discussing the red flags that John Gottman identified in his research that indicate distressed relationships. Today we’ll be ending this series with the fifth and final indicator, which is often the death knell for a relationship: stonewalling. (And listen up guys, because men tend to use this strategy more often than women when they’re in an unhappy situation.)
Stonewalling is the emotional withdrawal from an interaction or conflict. It occurs when one partner becomes so physiologically overwhelmed (flooded) by painful emotions that he/she can’t see a way out, and, in response, completely disengages from the interaction by checking out of the conversation. He/She literally appears to be disinterested in the conversation, tuning out or looking away or down in silence.
Clearly, stonewalling is not a productive way to work through a problem.
In order for stonewallers to reengage, they need to take a break from the distressing situation. They need to give themselves a chance to calm down and regroup. Taking a break doesn’t mean that the discussion is over; it just means that the current line of communication isn’t working and a new strategy needs to be implemented when the parties are calm.
When overwhelmed, the partner who stonewalls can break this pattern by saying something like, “Honey, I’m feeling emotionally flooded right now and I need to take a break from this conversation. I promise you that we can continue this discussion when we’ve both calmed down.” This way the stonewaller acknowledges the situation and reassures his/her partner that he/she will return to the conversation; the subject won’t be permanently avoided.
During the break, the stonewaller should use the time as an opportunity to soothe and calm him/herself, not to continue ruminating on the problem or the partner’s faults and mistakes. Specifically, the time should be used to:
- Practice deep breathing
- Imagine a calm and relaxed scene
- Practice progressive muscle relaxation
- Do something for at least 20 minutes to distract yourself from the fight (read, listen to music, go for a walk)
Lastly, remember that your partner is your ally (hopefully). Work together during periods of non-conflict to agree on a withdrawal signal or cue that you can use during a fight. Help one another learn to identify the signs that one of you is becoming emotionally flooded and agree to suggest a break rather than escalating a fight. This will keep you and your partner united and focused on repairing after a fight, and help ensure that your relationship is a safe and emotionally fulfilling place to be.
After all this talk about what makes relationships fail, in the next few months we’ll be turning our attention to the things that make relationships successful. Stay tuned for next month’s article when we start this series with the magic ratio that makes love last. Until then, I hope you’ll practice loving the people closest to you and make your relationships great!