Stonewalling- What is it & Why it is bad for relationships


Stonewalling is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse of relationships.

Wait?! The what of the what of relationships?

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse of relationships. This is a metaphor created by relationship researcher & marriage expert John Gottman, Ph.D, to describe communication styles that can lead to the “end of times” or the end of the relationship. These Four Horsemen include: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, & stonewalling. A great book that delves into these deeper by Dr. Gottman is The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert (affiliate link)

But here, I want to talk specifically about stonewalling. So what is stonewalling?

Figuratively, it is creating a wall of stone. In a marriage, stonewalling can become very dangerous and be a predictor of divorce if nothing is done to fix it according to Dr. Gottman. But what is happening when someone is creating this wall of stone?

A partner is stonewalling when they withdraw from interaction with the other partner. They shut down emotionally and do not communicate or engage with their spouse.

I think of stonewalling as closing off, shutting your doors with your partner on the outside & bottling up your emotions because you have become overwhelmed or flooded physiologically or psychologically. This overwhelming or flooding can come from a variety of things including trauma, contempt, resentment, defensiveness, secret keeping and I know I have done it due to my feelings of hopelessness that come from my depression.

Some might stonewall or tune the other partner out because they are tired of going over the same things over and over again without any results. Others might close up to keep the harmony. Maybe they shut down emotionally because they have felt so much pain on the matter that they are trying to protect themselves. Some partners refuse to communicate as a way to ‘get back’ at their spouse, thinking this will hurt them or punish them for not agreeing or taking their side.

Whatever the reason, we all have done it and do it at one point or another. As I mentioned before one of my reasons for stonewalling sometimes is because I feel an overwhelming sense of hopelessness so it’s me sort of saying “why bother?” or “it doesn’t matter what I say or do, it won’t change.” I know this isn’t healthy and I work on that all of the time. No one is perfect and no relationship is perfect. The key difference between the good marriages & the ones that end are allowing these Four Horsemen to come in and take over.

One or more of the Four Horsemen will occur during your marriage… that is normal. What is not ‘normal’ or healthy is to let these emotions and behaviors stay and linger. When stonewalling or one of the other Four Horsemen have become a habit, that is when your relationship is in trouble and heading down a dangerous path that will take a lot of extra hard work to get off of.

So what can you do if you do stonewall?

If you notice that you stonewall then congratulations! because the first step is to realize it and accept it. Nothing can be done if you are in denial that you might have stonewalling behaviors. After you are able to acknowledge it, stop. Fight the urge to turn away from your spouse, to close off and disengage. Pay attention to the emotions you are feeling & thoughts you have as this is happening. That way you will become quicker & better at recognizing when you are wanting to stonewall by noticing what you are feeling and thinking.

Dr. Gottman then recommends to learn how to self soothe as an antidote for stonewalling. Psychological self soothing is a great thing to learn if you stonewall or not! Just as we want children to learn how to self soothe so that they can gain better control of their emotions & calm themselves when their emotions have heightened, we as adults need to practice and implement self soothing for when we are flooded psychologically & physiologically. Learn and know how to calm yourself and what you need in order for you to do this. Take a break (you’re not stonewalling but using a ‘timeout’) and come back to the subject when emotions (heart rates & blood pressure) have lowered.

Don’t be discouraged if stonewalling is occurring in your marriage. Try these steps above. If you do feel it has reached a point that is out of your control, please look into seeking professional advise and help. Many marriage and family therapists are trained on how to help when the Four Horsemen have come into a marriage. Even if they aren’t trained on it specifically they can still offer some great advice. -Disclaimer

Hey there! I’m the creator and author at The Balanced Elephant. Through my passion, knowledge and training in yoga, meditation & marriage & family therapy I know we can create a healthier lifestyle even during the difficult times in life. I love to help others learn to live mindfully to be able to live in the present moment (good or bad) and to find balance of the whole self through the body and the mind.

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