Something to Know About Stonewallers

When your partner in a relationship stonewalls, what does it look like? They might leave the room or house. They may stop talking and ignore you. If they are an accomplished stonewaller, they probably look like they don’t care, are calm and unaffected. They look like “You could stand there screaming all day and I wouldn’t bat an eyelash.”

The first thing to know about this behavior is that, if it happens very often, your relationship is likely in trouble. You probably needed couples counseling years ago.

That is pretty common knowledge these days, now that John Gottman’s work is so well known. What I found surprising about stonewallers when I read his work is that if you hook a stonewaller up to a biofeedback machine like a heart-rate monitor, you find out that they are freaking out inside. Their heart rate and blood pressure are way up. They just look calm or withdrawn. They are actually so painfully engaged that they can’t deal with it. This knowledge has helped me think more clearly about stonewallers. I can be a lot more sympathetic to someone I know to be in something like flight-fight-freeze mode than someone who appears to be shutting me out.

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, July 21, 2010.]

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Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

John Gottman has been the leading researcher on romantic couples–mostly marriages–for at least a decade. He has developed a technique for analyzing conversations that lets him predict with a lot of accuracy whether that couple will stay together during the next several years. One of the things he does is video a couple talking about a contentious subject and code the conversation for what he calls the four horsemen of the apocalypse: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. The presence of these behaviors indicates that the relationship is being corroded.

Here’s a paraphrase of how he defines the four horsemen in The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy:

Criticism: Any statement that indicates that one partner thinks there is something wrong with the other, such as “What’s wrong with you?” or “You always blah-blah-blah.” Note that what he calls criticism is different from complaining. In a complaint, one partner says that they didn’t like something that the other did. For a complaint to become criticism, it needs a barb. A generalization like “You always…” or “You never…” will do, as will making the complaint about a character flaw, rather than a specific incident, like “Why would anyone do that?”

Defensiveness: When one partner acts as if the other is attacking them. Instead of directly responding to a statement, for example, the defensive partner might respond with a “counter-attack” like “What are you complaining about? You’re worse than I am!”

Contempt: Any statement or action which implies you are a better person than your partner, like mockery or eye-rolling. There is a facial expression for contempt, which Gottman also codes for. This is a version of  the sneer, from emotionalcompetency.com:

Stonewalling: When one partner removes themselves in some way from the conversation. This can be by leaving or ceasing to respond. Often this is combined with attempts to not show emotion on the face. This is the worst of the horsemen, just ahead of contempt. It seems to be quite difficult for a relationship with this kind of behavior to remain viable.

Gottman says that some amount of four-horsemen behaviors (except contempt, which apparently never happens in happy couples) are inevitable, and that what is critical is not that they don’t happen, but that they are repaired by soothing, softening, or meta-communicating.

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, July 18, 2010.]