Stonewalling, a.k.a. The Silent Treatment: What’s going on?
When acute or chronic negativity is present in a relationship, it is not uncommon for one person, usually the husband, to start stonewalling. The person stonewalling may avoid eye contact, focus on something outside the discussion (like a computer, newspaper, project), refuse to talk, or leave the room. Stonewalling is also known as ‘the silent treatment.’
Says John P. Gottman, PhD, “The stonewaller is really trying to calm down and not make it worse, but when you’re faced with somebody who’s silent like that, you escalate. So, it’s a very disruptive pattern.” Per Gottman’s research, 85% of stonewallers in heterosexual relationships are men. (Gottman’s research shows that stonewalling can be predicted by a heart rate above 100 bpm.)
What you should know if faced with a stonewalling partner: Stonewallers are actually trying to AVOID conflict and back away from the tremendous stress they feel–they are trying not to make it worse. The stonewaller’s partner may perceive this effort at stress avoidance as disrespectful and uncooperative, and so the response to stonewalling is usually to escalate.
If you are faced with a stonewalling partner:
- Understand they are trying to decrease stress and tension.
- If you are attacking or raising your voice, stop.
- Consider taking a break from the discussion.
If you are the partner who is stonewalling:
- Try to self-soothe without disengagement.
- Acknowledge any part of your partner’s concern, hurt or anger.
- Suggest a break from the discussion.
John Gottman’s research in marriages is remarkable in the length of time he and his research team followed couples. Their research points to four key markers of a relationship in trouble. He calls them ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ although I encourage you to see them as gifts—if you are able to recognize that you are experiencing one of these, congratulations, you have the chance to change it and the course of your relationship. Remember, a critical first step is to recognize these markers in yourself—the antidote for each is immediately productive and reinforces itself.
All four are listed below, as well as the antidote for each:
- Criticism: Complain without blame
- Defensiveness: Take responsibility
- Contempt: Build culture of appreciation
- Stonewalling: Do physiological self-soothing