Through his research, Dr. John Gottman found that distressed couples tend to use destructive behaviors in their conflict discussions, leading to destructive escalation. He calls these behaviors the four horsemen, after the Biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse. They include criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. In this blog, I’ll focus on stonewalling.
When stonewalling occurs, the listener withdraws from the interaction, but they stay physically in the room. What we observe is that they avoid eye-contact, and the stonewalling partner may cross their arms, look down, or turn away.
What we generally do not observe is what is going on inside the body of a person who is stonewalling. They become physiologically flooded: their heart rate goes up, they may experience flushing, their blood pressure increases, and they lose access to the rational part of their brain. They’ve entered fight-or-flight mode. In this video, Drs. John and Julie Gottman discuss what happens when we become physiologically flooded, and how it can lead to stonewalling.
Self soothing is the key to correcting stonewalling. We need to be able to take a break and calm our bodies. Different techniques work for different people. Some practice breathing, while others may take a walk or do crossword puzzles. It’s important that whatever you do, you do not spend the time focusing on the conflict.
It’s also important to stay connected to your partner. Verbalize that you may need to take a break, but will come back to the conversation. If your partner does not know that you are flooded, they often misinterpret stonewalling as simply not being listened to. As a result, there is a tendency to escalate the conversation with criticism and, possibly contempt.