In my work with couples, I often lean on the work of Dr. John Gottman, a clinician and researcher with 40 years of experience studying what makes marriages successful…and what makes them fall apart. Gottman and colleagues cite the practices of curiosity, mutual affection, and turning toward our partners’ bids for connection as relationship strengtheners. Across research, Gottman has identified what he calls the “Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse,” the behaviors that create the most marital strain1. In this, the final installment of our 4-part series, we’ll be talking about the 4th Horseman: Stonewalling.
Have you ever been in a heated conversation with a partner and found yourself suddenly unable to answer questions? There’s static in your head or roaring in your ears and you want to answer back (or run away) but you feel frozen in place? Have you ever been in a fight with a loved one and felt like he/she/they aren’t listening? You feel angry or frustrated and try to communicate, but the more you try to get your point across the more checked-out and far away they seem? Stonewalling is perhaps the most confusing and misunderstood of the 4 Horsemen. Partners of stonewallers often feel abandoned, disrespected, or like their loved one deliberately tunes them out during times of conflict. Stonewalling, in fact, is the opposite of deliberate. It’s an involuntary way that our autonomic nervous system, or ANS, works to protect us during times of perceived threat.
The ANS is the oldest, most primal part of us and one of its primary jobs is to keep us safe. There are two main parts of this system of safety, the sympathetic nervous system (think of it as the accelerator of a car) that helps us to get motivated, feel joy, feel anger, move around, etc. and the parasympathetic nervous system (the car’s “brake”), that helps us to calm down, rest, feel sad, and digest our food. During times of stress, the sympathetic ANS increases our heart rate, shunts blood to the lungs and muscles of the arms and legs, and dilates our pupils, i.e. alters our physiology so that we can best face whatever threatens us. Imagine you’re an early Homo Sapien and as you’re gathering food in the forest, a saber tooth tiger leaps out of the bushes. This accelerator helps you to fight or run from the tiger in the attempt to save your life. It’s an automatic response; you don’t have time to think through the best course of action in moments of acute threat, so your ANS “decides” for you. If your ANS “decides” that your chances of winning the fight or running from the tiger are slim, then it’s time to freeze or “play dead.” That’s where the parasympathetic nervous system comes in. It slams on the physiological break, constricting the pupils and blood flow to the lungs and muscles and dilating blood vessels to the GI tract (which looks like difficulty moving, dissociating, and, in times to true terror, sometimes voiding one’s bladder or bowels).
Still with me? It’s important to understand the basics of the fight-flight-freeze response in order to understand what’s happening inside a person who is stonewalling. In a modern day fight with your partner, sympathetic acceleration—ie fight or flight— can look like big, shouting anger, nagging, crying, or rapid-fire verbal pursuit. If, however, the stress of the situation becomes too taxing or stressful, the ANS hits the brakes and shifts to the freeze response; it’s time to play dead. It’s vital to remember that this is all involuntary (not the angry shouting, but the physiology driving it), and a person who stonewalls is NOT deliberately ignoring or giving the silent treatment. Their nervous system simply cannot tolerate the amount of stress it’s experiencing. Stonewalling is damaging to a partnership for two reasons: for the stonewaller, it’s an indicator that there’s toxic stress during conflict to the point of ANS collapse; for the stonewalled, it feels like your partner doesn’t care about the problem or about you.
So, what to do if stonewalling is a part of your conflict with your partner? If you are the stonewaller, it’s important to notice when you’re becoming dysregulated during conflict. We go to fight-flight first before we freeze. Start getting curious about the way your body responds in an argument; your heart rate may start to increase, your face may flush, your palms might get hot or sweaty. Tuning in to these physiological signs of ANS will help you to know when you’re headed for freeze. If you’re the stonewalled, it’s important to remember that your partner isn’t purposefully ignoring or abandoning you—they just physically and emotionally can’t deal. I work with couples often on creating a “Time Out” framework during moments of high stress in conflict that helps both partners shift out of fight-flight-freeze and back into their stress windows of tolerance.
Time Out Protocol
- If one or both partners is noticing the physiological signs of too much stress, it’s time to call a Time Out.
- We never call a Time Out because we think our partner needs one—we’re responsible for ourselves and our bodies only.
- Look at your partner and tell them you need a Time Out
- Set time and location parameters for where you’re going and how long you’ll be gone
- DO engage with activities that calm or ground you during the time out. DON’T replay the conflict, gather ammunition for reengaging with the argument, plan what you’re going to say when you reunite with your partner
- Come back together and resume discussion once both partners are grounded. If one or both partners are still too stressed following the Time Out, repeat with a longer window of calm-down time.
A script could go like this: “I’m feeling overwhelmed/flooded/stressed out and I’m having a hard time hearing what you’re trying to say. I care about you and want to work on this problem together, so I need a Time Out. I’m going to take the dog for a walk and I’ll be back in 20 minutes.”
Stonewalling is a particularly tricky Horseman because of the involuntary nature of the behavior associated with it. I hope that this blog has helped make sense of what happens inside the person who stonewalls and how you or your partner can better equip yourselves to handle it when it arises. The 4 Horsemen don’t happen in relationships overnight—they occur because of complex intersections of chronic stress, how our primary attachment relationships with our original caregivers have shaped us, communication and connection fracture, and lack of knowledge. We won’t reverse these patterns of behavior perfectly or overnight, but eliminating them as thoroughly as possible is a huge step on the road to having the healthy, happy, connected romantic partnership you desire and deserve.
1. The Four Horsemen. The Gottman Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved October 5, 2022, from https://www.gottman.com/blog/category/column/the-four-horsemen/