Everyone knows that in order for marriage to work, there has to be communication. And yet there seems to come a time in every relationship, when it all comes to a screeching halt. For some couples, the breakdown is a drama of intense emotion and slamming doors, followed by a glacial silence that feels as hopeless as it does lonely. For others, communication breakdown is marked by nothing more than a subtle but demoralizing turning away, and a silent stare out the window. Either way, we all know what it means: Any chance of real communication has ended and in it’s place a stony wall of silence and isolation has been erected. There’s no telling how long it might last, but until it dissolves, you are alone.
The phenomenon I am describing is called Stonewalling, and it is one of the four horsemen, identified by the Gottman institute. (To read more about the Four Horsemen go to The Four Horsemen). When Stonewalling becomes a frequent visitor in your relationship, it serves as a deadly and reliable divorce predictor. It’s not that the stonewaller intends the relationship to suffer, or is even planning to stonewall. And yet, almost as if it were taking place out side of his or her own will, he finds himself choking on the very words that need to be spoken, all the while fantasizing an escape plan.
On the other side of this stonewall there is a different experience: it may begin with confusion, followed by frustration, even fury. Eventually you find yourself moving on to resignation and hopelessness as you can’t seem to find a way to reach past the stony silence and reconnect with your partner.
What causes this devastating experience and what can be done about it? First, it’s important to highlight the fact that while the experience is quite different depending on which side of the stonewall you are on, both partners are victims of this strange but common form of isolation. As helpless as you feel to reach your partner, he (or she) is just as powerless to suddenly turn toward you and start talking. This is because the stone-waller is experiencing a sense of emotional overwhelm, or flooding. Although there may only be a vague awareness of it, he is feeling deeply threatened and helpless to stop what feels like a personal attack. He is in the early stages of what is commonly know as fight-or-flight syndrome. His primary defence system has detected danger and is preparing him for survival. Breathing becomes more shallow and rapid, heart rate subtly increases, and he starts to develop a kind of tunnel-vision that makes listening and communicating impossible. Ironically, the more we attempt to beat down this wall from the outside, the stronger it seems to become. What to do?
The solution is as counter-intuitive as it is simple: The stonewaller must become convinced that he is not in danger, and that he is safe. When I notice stonewalling take place in couples therapy, I immediately bring the conversation to a halt and help the stonewaller to feel soothed and calm. Breathing and relaxation exercises prove very helpful, but it generally takes at least 10-15 minutes before constructive conversation can resume. Then, we go to work at tracking down what set off the fight-or-flight mechanism, and developing a plan for safety and soothing that the couple can implement outside of therapy. While identifying the early markers of emotional flooding and stonewalling is tricky business, if a couple is able to learn to do it outside of therapy, they will have overcome an otherwise devastating obstacle to their goal of good communication.
If you think you are in a relationship marked with stonewalling, here are a few things you can try:
- If you are finding it difficult to look at your partner and wish you could just get out of the conversation, ask for a break and promise your partner that you will return in 30 minutes.
- If you notice that your partner has stopped interacting, speak to him or her softy. Try asking if they wish to resume this conversation at a later time. While your instinct may be to hold your stonewaller captive to finish the conversation, this is rarely productive.
- Make a plan together with your partner and develop a strategy of how to put it into action. You may come up with some unique and effective new ideas! I would love to hear about them.
Stonewalling is a dangerous relationship killer that has the potential to erode the sense of fondness & connection in any marriage. But the research shows that when the right tools, including soothing and developing a sense of safety are applied, a relationship will not only recover, but even thrive.
MA; RCC and Director
Henry provides couples therapy in Kelowna and has been working with Marriages & Families since 1991. This includes 10 years as a foster parent, helping couples prepare for and enrich their family experience, and 25 years of private practice as a couples & family therapist. His wealth of experience and professionalism provide you and your family with the care and direction you need in order to achieve your relationship goals.