What is Stonewalling?
By Laura Silverstein, Certified Gottman Therapist
You may not know the name for it, but most of us know how it feels when we are trying to get through to someone, and bump up against nothing but a stone wall. What do you do when your partner shuts down?
Stonewalling is another word for emotional shutdown. It is being shut out by someone you love and it’s rotten for everyone.
It usually happens after a fight, but not always. Sometimes you do not know why your partner has stopped engaging with you, which is infuriating.
You try to ask what’s wrong, and the response is, “nothing.”
You start to feel like a monkey, pulling out all your tricks. You try being sweet and understanding, but nothing; you try asking questions, nothing, you try changing the subject and start chatting about another topic, but that doesn’t work either.
You are stuck in a pattern that is very common in relationships. Dr. Sue Johnson, founder of Emotion-Focused Therapy, calls it the pursuer-distancer dynamic, and Drs John and Julie Gottman, founders of the Gottman Method, call it stonewalling.
One thing is clear, it feels rotten for both people, and it is toxic for your relationship.
You Probably Think They Don’t Even Care
It’s a reasonable assumption from your point of view. When someone has emotionally shut down, they certainly look like they don’t care. Their facial expression is usually neutral, with little to no expression of emotion, and their voice tone becomes monotonous. Answers to questions are short.
You begin to interpret all of this as indifference.
When it looks like the person we love most in the world doesn’t care how upset we are, the urgency begins to rise, causing us to knock even harder on the door, desperate for reassurance that we are loved. And the harder we knock, the taller and more solid the wall becomes.
What is Actually Happening
We know from 4 decades of research that the conclusion that your partner doesn’t care probably couldn’t be further from the truth.
You and your partner are engaged in an unpleasant but very common dance. One of you needs to connect for reassurance that everything is okay, and the other needs space for reassurance.
When you are the pursuer in this situation, the most important thing to remember is that what you see on the outside does not reflect your partner’s internal experience. Most likely, your partner is completely overwhelmed with emotion, feeling like a deer in headlights with nothing safe to do or say.
The fight and flight defenses are much easier to recognize than the freeze defense.
We know from the research that when people emotionally shut down like this, their heart rates are usually well over 100 BPM, they have lost access to the part of their brain capable of complex reasoning, and have even lost their peripheral vision. It is easy to miss the reality that your partner is in a heightened state of stress.
What to Do When Your Partner Shuts Down
This is one of those times when the concept of what to do is quite simple but very difficult to implement.
You need to take a break.
The conversation will only get worse if you attempt to keep talking when one or both of you are in a state of physiological arousal. There needs to be a cooling-off period so that you can each catch your breath, let your heart rates level off and slowly and gently find your frontal cortex.
Here is the problem.
It is extremely difficult to give someone space when they are distancing themselves. Perhaps there is a fear that if you don’t talk about it now, the conversation will never happen, or it feels like you might lose them as you see them appearing further and further away.
Paradoxically when you give your overwhelmed partner space, you are actually more likely stay close and connected. But there are two very important things that need to happen to avoid emotional disconnection. If these two things do not happen then trust will be eroded and it will become increasingly difficult for you to give your partner what they need, thus also not getting what you need from your partner. To establish trust, this is what must happen:
- The person asking for space must commit to reconnecting at a specific time and place
- The person asking for dialogue must give his/her partner the space that is being requested
Why Do I Shut Down When I Get Upset?
Perhaps you are also shutting down when you are getting upset, which is equally frustrating. And there is a scientific explanation for why we shut down.
Emotional shutdown is a response to overwhelming emotions, and it happens when our brains perceive a threat. When we experience a stressful or traumatic event, our brains activate the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure in the limbic system that is responsible for processing emotions.
The amygdala sends signals to the hypothalamus, which then activates the sympathetic nervous system. This triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which prepare our bodies for a fight-or-flight response.
All this is to say that what you are experiencing when you shut down is a normal adaptive response in your brain.
But you and your partner don’t have to suffer when this happens.
How to Stop Shutting Down During Arguments
To illustrate how to handle emotional shut down in your relationship, let’s create an imaginary couple: Sam and Sarah.
Sam has become completely flooded by an argument he was having with Sarah.
She is asking him questions, and he is not responding to her for fear that it will make things worse. She thinks he doesn’t care how important this is to her and is doing nothing to contradict her fear.
He knows this at some level but doesn’t know how to get out of it.
Here is the Ticket Out:
Here is an example of how Sam can ask Sarah for a break when he realizes he is emotionally shutting down (the sooner the better).
Sam: I’m totally maxed out Sarah, and don’t want to say anything that is going to make this worse. I need a time out right now, but I promise to continue the conversation after I’ve calmed down.
Sarah: Okay but we’ve said that before and then don’t always follow through.
Sam: You’re right, how about we sit down and have a cup of tea together to talk about this in 20 minutes. That will give me time to take the dog for a walk and take my shower.
Sarah: Okay, so, so that will be at 7:25 then?
Sam: [looks at his watch] Yes, we’ll keep talking then
What Not to Do
Sam: OMG, Sarah, back off, I’m losing it!
Sarah: You don’t get it! I’m just trying to talk to you, will you please listen!?!
Sam: I can’t right now, I’m trying but I can’t.
Sarah: Okay, let’s take a break and try again in 20 minutes
Sam: Okay, thanks, I’ll take the dog out and meet you at 7:25 in the kitchen
How to Use Your Time-out
Whether you decide on a 20 minute time out period, or 24 hours, the way that the time is spent is crucial to the outcome. It is important to remember that the purpose of the separation is for each partner to self-soothe. By calming your body first, you will be able to re-ground yourself. This will allow you to truly understand what you are thinking and feeling in order to decide what to do or say next.
When your thoughts are focused on relaxing your body you are less likely to be hijacked into self-righteous indignation in which you are obsessing about all the horrible things about your partner (which is counter-productive to building closeness). Perhaps you already have a strategy that you know works for you. Here are some ideas that have worked for others:
- Mindfulness exercises
- Progressive Relaxation (here is a link to a 7 minute progressive relaxation)
- Gentle exercise
- Changing your body temperature (for example a hot shower or a brisk walk outside)
What to Do Next
After both of you are calm, it’s time to talk in a way that leads to a productive conversation. It’s crucial to communicate better so that you both feel connected and understood. The last thing you want is to start talking and escalate from zero to sixty all over again, so ommitting to a time-out procedure is crucial.
Being shut out by someone you love is not only painful, but it could also put an otherwise healthy relationship in jeopardy.c
Here are some resources to help you out:
A Free Gift For You 💕
To further avoid stonewalling and help you know what to do when your partner shuts down, Certified Gottman Therapist, Laura Silverstein has created a free video mini-series for you. It walks couples through what to do when someone feels emotionally overwhelmed. You can enroll free RIGHT NOW 🙂
Congratulations on your commitment to relationship wellness!
For More Information About What to Do When Your Partner Shuts Down
Check out Love Is an Action Verb Couples Therapy Workbook by the author of this article.
This workbook walks you through how to prevent emotional shutdown by noticing the red flags and improving your communication skills so that you can have productive conversations.
The workbook is as close as you can get to having a couples therapist in your backpack giving you coaching and guidance with over 70 exercises, communication starters and healthy relationship quizzes and worksheets.
You can pick up your copy HERE.
Dr. John Gottman led a research team in a 40 year longitudinal study allowing him to be able to predict divorce with 90% accuracy. Through this research he operationalized 6 predictors of divorce. One of theses 6 predictors has been labeled the “4 Horsemen of the Apolcalypse”, which includes Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling.
The good news is that not only did Dr. Gottman identify the predictors of divorce, he also provided the antidotes for these problems so that couples can learn the skills turn their relationships around. In other words the research is based on couples who did not receive help, so now we know what to do instead. This blog is providing the antidote for Stonewalling. Soft startup is the antidote for criticism, taking accountability is the antidote for defensiveness, and building a culture of appreciation is the antidote for contempt. Please take a look at my other blog posts:
Antidote to Criticism (How to Avoid a Fight)
Antidote to Defensiveness (How to Stop Being Defensive)