Conflict, disagreement, and confrontation are things every couple experience at some point in their relationship. While it is a healthy and normal phenomenon, fighting can also include unhealthy behaviors and communication patterns. In these situations, one partner may become very activated and begin to yell while the other starts to shut their partner out by walking away, playing on their phone, or not speaking to their partner. This shutting out process is what Dr. John Gottman labeled as “stonewalling.” According to Dr. Gottman, Stonewalling is a defense mechanism used when an individual is feeling overwhelmed and “flooded” emotionally. This flooding leads them to withdraw, become unresponsive, and tune out from the argument for hours, days, or even months on end in order to protect themselves from further discomfort. Using stonewalling to avoid the problem at hand can lead to resentment, poor communication, and unhappiness in your relationship. Below are a few ways to challenge stonewalling in your relationship so you can engage with your partner effectively and work through the issue rather than avoid it or make it worse.
Learn Your Triggers
Stonewalling is a defense that you didn’t just pick up overnight; it has most likely been used many times throughout your life. It can be helpful to reflect on other times in your life when you felt like shutting down to understand what causes you to stonewall today.
Take a Break
Rather than shutting your partner out, it is important you know when you need a break. Taking a break prevents emotional flooding and gives you both time to think before coming back to the issue at hand. Without a break, the conversation will continue to be maladaptive and leave you feeling overwhelmed and your partner shutout. Recognize if you are starting to feel overwhelmed or if you are engaging in your stonewalling behaviors, calmly say you need some time to process, and let your partner know you want to come back to the conversation in 30 minutes.
During the break, engage in the best self-soothing techniques that works best for you. Some commonly used self-soothing techniques include breathing, mindfulness apps, meditation, listening to music, or reading. Taking care of yourself will bring you back to a place where you will be able to have a productive conversation with your significant other without shutting down. Listen to yourself and your needs when you begin to shut down in order to prepare yourself to re-address the issue with your partner.
Come Back To The Issue
Always come back to the issue. The most important part of conflict is the repair; if you never come back to the conversation, you never repair. During your break, you had some time to consider why you are overwhelmed, what needs to change, what clarification you need, or what you are avoiding. Coming back together to address these things will facilitate the productivity and understanding you wouldn’t get otherwise. It isn’t always easy to come back to a difficult conversation, as we like fights to end as fast as possible, but it is worth it.
If you are finding it difficult to keep stonewalling out of your relationship and would like some support, it may be useful to connect with a therapist. Contact Symmetry Counseling at 312-578-9990 to set up an appointment with one of our very skilled therapists today!