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Stonewalling

According to Elizabeth Dickenson, LCSW, of all the research that has been done on couples, by far the most thorough has been that of John Gottman, a Seattle-based researcher, clinician and former mathematician. Dickenson cites that he was recently chosen as one of the top 10 most influential therapists of the past quarter century based upon an extensive survey of therapists conducted by Psychotherapy Networker Magazine. That places him in the company of such luminaries as Carl Jung, Carl Rogers, Milton Erickson, Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis. 1
The Four Horsemen

Through his research Gottman was able to identify four behaviors that are strongly correlated with divorce, so much so that he has designated them as the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. These behaviors can be especially devastating if they have become permanent features of a relationship. The Four Horseman are as follows:

1) criticism (a more global put down of a person’s character, as opposed to a specific complaint);
2) contempt, which ultimately conveys disgust;
3) defensiveness, as opposed to listening to what the other person is saying; and
4) stonewalling, meaning that one person tunes out or otherwise disengages from the discussion (likely to be the husband 85% of the time). 1

Another important concept closely related to the Four Horseman and in particular as a precursor to stonewalling is flooding. According to Dickenson, men are more likely than women to feel physiological “flooding” in response to what feels like overwhelming or sudden negativity on the part of their spouse and, if the flooding happens frequently, it is a good predictor of divorce. This flooded feeling is often behind the “stonewalling” mentioned above.

And the men are not just being difficult; there is a physical explanation for why men tend to become more overwhelmed by marital conflict than their wives. Men are more reactive to stress — and their physical signs, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of adrenaline respond more strongly and recover more slowly than is the case for women. 1

When negativity has been present in a marriage for some time, it is not uncommon for one person, usually the husband, to start stonewalling. They may look down, hide behind the newspaper, refuse to talk, leave the room, etc. Generally stonewalling is a response to feeling flooded; that is why the antidote to stonewalling is self-soothing.

Flooding can best be addressed by creating time outs of at least 20 minutes and by learning self-soothing techniques to calm down. Ideally both partners can cooperate together to understand what triggers the flooding in the first place and how they can operate better as a team. 1

What Stonewalling Looks Like:

And what it turns into is often…Emotional Disengagement

According to Dr. Jeffery Pipe, when defensiveness fails to protect from recurrent confrontations of contempt and criticism, stonewalling is the next layer of self-protection that finds its way into a marriage relationship.  Dr. Pipe states that Stonewalling is, in short, emotional disengagement.  Dr Pipe states that when someone is stonewalling, they will typically stop responding to their spouse in any meaningful way. 

They may offer short, one-word responses or they may simply remain silent.  However, stonewalling is not defined by the lack of any verbal reaction, but by the emotional disengagement.  Because one spouse has emotionally removed themselves from the interaction, their posture, tone of voice and facial expressions remain flat.  They wear a “thousand mile stare”; though their body is present, their heart and mind have left the building.  3

Men are more likely to stonewall and by the time that a guy is stonewalling on a regular basis, a relationship is in trouble.  Men who stonewall are likely to do so because they feel themselves being flooded by emotion and stress.  They feel helpless to alter the course of an interaction and on some level they have begun to lose hope.  Unable to cope with their negative feelings or meaningfully confront the situation, they give up, flip an internal switch and emotionally disengage.3

Where stonewalling marks disengagement, empathy marks engagement.  Empathy is indicative of care and connection.  Empathy is any emotional expression that shows your spouse that you are feeling what they feel – demonstrates connection.  While empathy may not necessarily ease your spouse’s negative feelings, it lets them know that they are not alone in them. 3

The Antidotes to the Four Horsemen

According to Gottman (2008) the antidotes to the Four Horseman are as follows:

1) The antidote to criticism is to complain without blaming one’s partner, to bring up problems in a gentle manner. 

2) The antidote to defensiveness is to take at least some responsibility for a problem rather than taking the stance of a victim or counterattacking with “righteous indignation”. 

3) The antidote to contempt is to develop a culture of appreciation in the relationship, and to become mindful of ways that one may take an attitude of superiority over one’s partner (sometimes this can be subtle, such as a facial expression or the tone of one’s voice).
4) The antidote to stonewalling is to take a break from conflict interaction; self-soothe, and return to the conversation in order to try to repair the rift between the couple. 2

Dr. David B Hawkins of the Marriage Recovery Center gives the following 5-point plan for specifically addressing Stonewalling head on:

One, admit that stonewalling is a form of emotional abuse. For as tempting as it is to withdraw in the face of tension and perhaps even criticism, stonewalling is not the way to handle it. Stonewalling punishes your mate for what you perceive them doing to you and only adds fuel to the fire.  4

Two, deal with the conflict directly. Rather than passive-aggressively withdrawing, speak directly to your mate. Agree to manage emotions so both partners feel safe. One person speaks at a time, with the other agreeing to fully listen. If you cannot talk to him/ her at that moment, choose a time when you can talk about the issues directly. 4
Three, call for a temporary time-out if you feel overwhelmed. Ask for emotional space, agreed upon by both, rather than punishing your mate with silence. Ideally you will take only a short time to regroup before being able to talk directly about the problem. 4

Fourth, develop your voice. Learn the art of effective communication, which involves being clear, calm, conciliatory, collaborative and connected. Whereas stonewalling creates even more anger and hostility, developing your own clear voice creates connection with your mate. 4

Finally, agree on a plan together. Rather than one withdrawing because they feel overwhelmed, and the other being exasperated, create a plan that works for both of you. Explore the power of working together to solve this communication problem. 4

As illustrated in the recent Disney movie, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, people who are happy in relationships work together, listen to each other and demonstrate empathy.

1 http://relationshiprealizations.com/psychotherapy-articles/relationship-in-trouble-reducing-negativity.htm

2 http://www.sonomacouplesworkshops.com/sCW_horsemen.php

3 http://tapestryassociates.com/stonewalling-vs-empathy

4 http://www.crosswalk.com/family/marriage/doctor-david/breaking-through-the-stone-wall.html

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