When you share your thoughts and feelings with someone, or recount how your day went, you expect the listener to respond in some way to indicate interest and attention – the verbal “uh-huh,” the raised eyebrow, the eye contact. Receiving such feedback is important because it deepens your connection with the listener. But what if you do not get any of that? And what if this person is your spouse, and you’re telling him or her something important? Does it set off a red flag in your mind that your marriage could be in trouble?
Sometimes, in the heat of an argument, one party disengages or “shuts down” when he or she feels attacked. This person may physically leave the room or, if escape is not possible, look away and become silent. If we have a camera that zooms in on this person’s face, we may even notice tight jaw and facial muscles, as if he or she is fighting the urge to speak or concealing any emotional expression.
That, according to marriage expert John Gottman, is stonewalling, the fourth Horseman of Apocalypse that will destroy a marriage if left untreated.
Gottman’s studies reveal that women are more likely than men to criticize. Perhaps by no coincidence, men are more likely than women to stonewall – in fact, 85 percent of stonewallers are men! This is because when men feel overwhelmed during an interaction and their physiology (blood pressure, heart rate, etc.) becomes hyper aroused, they feel a need to withdraw to calm themselves down, emotionally and physiologically.
When a person stonewalls, the partner often becomes anxious about being abandoned or worry that this could be a sign that the stonewaller does not care. In other words, the partner now feels the physiological hyper arousal. As a result, the partner may push the issue to convince the stonewaller to stay involved. You can imagine that the stonewaller then sees this as a further demand/attack and withdraws further, creating a vicious cycle. In the long run, this becomes a pursuer-distancer dynamic in the relationship, leaving both parties feeling exhausted, unappreciated, and helpless.
What can we do about this?
If you find that either you or your partner tends to stonewall, sit down with your partner and agree beforehand what might be a more helpful response. For example, a stonewaller can learn to say, “I want to resolve this as much as you do, but I’m feeling overwhelmed right now. I need some time to clear my head. Let’s come back to this an hour from now (or tomorrow).” During the time-out, practice relaxation to try to bring your physiological responses back to the baseline.
If you find your spouse stonewalling in your next argument, understand that this does not mean you have failed or that your spouse is not interested. Rather, try to accept that he or she does not have the mental and physiological capacity to handle the stress right now and is asking for some space. Say, “I know you need some time alone, so I’m going to check in with you later.”
Have you ever witnessed any of the Four Horsemen (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) in your relationships? How did you overcome these challenges? I invite you to add a comment below or share your experiences via email.
(This post concludes my four-part series on the 4 Destructive Forces of Any Marriage.)