Taking Down the Wall—How Silence Hurts the Relationship

August 3rd, 2011

We have come to the final horsemen of John Gottman’s “Horsemen of the Apocalypse”—danger signs in the relationship. Previously we talked about criticism, contempt and defensiveness. The final horseman is stonewalling. Stonewalling is when someone removes himself or herself from the argument by turning into a “stone wall.” For instance, instead of showing active listening (i.e., saying “uh-huh” or “I see” while listening), the stonewaller shows stony silence during communication.

Usually when people decide to stonewall, they think they are being “neutral” and trying not to make the argument worse by retorting. However, it can make it worse. Gottman said, “They do not seem to realize that stonewalling itself is a very powerful act: it conveys disapproval, icy distance and smugness.”

There are different methods of stonewalling. Some people won’t react at all when their partner is upset while others will mutter one-syllable responses or change the subject. Others will actually physically remove themselves from the situation. Gottman said, “Whatever the particular style, the message to the spouse is the same: I am withdrawing, disengaging from any meaningful interaction with you.”

Using our previous example of a conflict over household chores, let’s see what would happen if someone stonewalls. Your spouse says to you, “Oh, don’t bother to get up and help. I’m sure your day was worse than mine and your time is more valuable than mine. I’m happy to be your slave” (showing contempt). Immediately you shoot back, “Why can’t I relax a little bit? I had a hard day at work too! You need to settle down and think about others for a change. I can’t read your mind” (showing defensiveness).  Your spouse tries to say something back but instead of listening, you fold your arms, shoot your spouse a dirty look and storm away into the back room.

Your spouse is left there wondering what to do. You obviously made it clear that you are no longer interested in the conversation. And your actions make it seem like you also have no desire to be around your partner. Even if you think you are just trying to get a handle on your emotions by leaving, that is not the message that is being conveyed.

I will be honest. I’ve learned the hard way how withdrawing can hurt your spouse. Stonewalling is probably my biggest weakness. And I didn’t know it was such a dangerous thing to withdraw until I learned about Gottman’s Four Horsemen. Just like Gottman said, some people think that by withdrawing you are staying “neutral”; I thought it was better to take myself out of the argument by going in the back and “cooling off.” But it actually made it worse.

Now, cooling off can be a good thing. When our emotions are in high gear, we can say and do things we might regret. So telling your spouse, “I’m losing it. I need to calm down for a bit. Can you give me a little time and then we can try to talk about this again,” may be a constructive strategy. But that’s not what I was doing. Instead of trying to calm my emotions, I would sulk and think of all the reasons why I shouldn’t be with my husband.

Thankfully, my husband is a very patient man and could pretty much guess what I was thinking to myself. He would sit down with me and gently talk to me about what I was feeling. Eventually we would kind of laugh about it because he was very good at guessing what I was thinking. It honestly took me some time to change my thought patterns and fix how I handled conflict.

Because I know stonewalling is a big weakness of mine, I have tried to be more aware and conscious of any urges I have to just leave the conversation. I have to be more careful not to let my emotions overwhelm me and try and communicate more openly (and calmly) to my husband when I get upset.

By doing this, it has honestly helped our relationship out a lot. We’ve recognized our conflict patterns and have tried to overcome our bad habits.

Gottman’s Four Horsemen are all harmful to communication, which is one of the most important components to a healthy relationship. It is hard to keep positive communication flowing when you or your partner are flinging insults or walking away.

Gottman gives 4 simple healing steps to help combat and defend when the “Apocalypse” happens.

  1. Calm Down
  2. Speak Non-Defensively (and be a listener who tries to understand your partner)
  3. Validate Your Spouse (even when you disagree, learn to say, “I understand why you feel that way.”)
  4. Don’t Give Up (or try and try again)

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for Relationships can be avoided. Hopefully, now you have the knowledge and the tools to get rid of those types of interactions in your own relationship. By protecting yourself against negative conflict styles, you can keep your relationship healthy and strong.