The Four Horsemen Blog Series – #4 Stonewalling
The Fourth Horseman – Stonewalling
To stonewall means to delay or block (a request, process, or person) by refusing to answer questions or by giving evasive replies.
Stonewalling is the last of the four horsemen for a reason. This interaction, or lack thereof, usually arrives later in the relationship when criticism, contempt, and defensiveness have had their heyday. If the first three horsemen have been running rampant within the relationship without intervention, stonewalling is bound to occur.
Imagine that you are met with criticism when you arrive home from work. You don’t want to fight, so you are not very responsive. You think this will de-escalate the situation because you are not participating. Your partner then begins to yell even more because they feel ignored. You are tired; you disengage, and physically leave the room. You may believe that you are helping your relationship by avoiding a fight, when in actuality you are avoiding your relationship.
Although anyone can be a stonewaller, there has been research on the gender differences in male/female relationships. Stonewallers are more likely to be men (85%, actually). This may be biological since men are more likely to become physiologically overwhelmed than women when in conflict, meaning that they are more likely to have increased heart rate and blood pressure during a disagreement with their partner. Therefore, men may feel an instinctive need to flee during a heated discussion to protect their health.
It is interesting to note that while men tend to have more of an increased heart rate when in conflict, women tend to have more of an increased heart rate when they are stonewalled by their male partner (male partners do not seem to have this reaction when their female partner stonewalls them). It’s possible that both the male and female partners are stonewallers, but usually only becomes a concern when the male is stonewalling, since his partner is most upset by it.
Note that the gender differences, while they do have significance, are generalizations and each relationship is unique. There will be same sex relationships where both partners are stonewallers, or where one partner is more likely to stonewall than the other. There will be heterosexual relationships where both partners are stonewallers, or the stonewaller is the female. This information is only intended to help you better understand your own relationship, if it is applicable.
Quiz: Are You A Stonewaller?
Take this quiz soon after an argument or disagreement with your partner when your actions and feelings are fresh on your mind. Or think about the last argument you had and recall it with as much detail as possible. Answer YES or NO for each of the following 13 questions.
1) When my partner complained I felt that I just wanted to get away from this garbage.
2) I had to control myself to keep from saying what I really felt.
3) I thought, “It’s best to withdraw to avoid a big fight.”
4) I withdrew to try to calm down.
5) When we have a big blowup, I just want to leave.
6) At times when my spouse is very negative, I think it is best just not to respond at all.
7) I’d rather withdraw than get my feelings hurt.
8) I think that sometimes withdrawing is the best solution.
9) I wondered by small issues suddenly became big ones.
10) I withdrew when my partner’s emotions seemed out of control.
11) I thought, “I don’t have to take this kind of treatment.”
12) I didn’t want to fan the flames of conflict, so I just sat back and waited.
13) I hate it when things in our discussions stop being rational.
Scoring: If you answered YES to 4 or more items you are probably a good candidate for being a stonewaller.
Credit: This quiz is featured in the book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail by John Gottman, PhD.
How Did You Do?
All of us have been guilty of stonewalling at some point in our lives. You need not be too concerned unless this horseman appears with frequency in your relationship. When stonewalling becomes commonplace, it is highly likely that you will become separated, divorced, or remain in an unhappy partnership if there are no interventions.
The Antidote to Stonewalling
Because conflict and the subsequent stonewalling cause a physiological sense of being overwhelmed, the antidote is to self-soothe. When you are becoming overwhelmed take a break by calling a time-out. Couples have different ways of requesting this, whether through a phrase or code. You and your partner can come up with a meaningful way to request this time apart to calm down. Plan to take a break for at least 20 to 30 minutes before coming back together.
When you do come back together be sure to speak non-defensively, express your needs, listen with empathy, and make sure your partner feels heard and understood.
Four Horsemen Summary
Over the past few weeks I have given you a lot of information on the four horsemen. Here is a great video from The Gottman Institute that summarizes the four horsemen and their antidotes.
I’ve truly enjoyed writing this series and hope that you have found it beneficial in addressing the four horsemen within your relationship.
I'm Here For Your Relationship
I'm on a mission to reduce the stigma of couples therapy. We are not always taught how to be part of a couple, how to have healthy relationships, and how to make love last. So there's no shame in getting support for your most important relationship. The services I offer could be compared to relationship school.
School is in session and I'm here to help you and your partner increase friendship and intimacy, improve communication, manage conflict, and enrich your relationship.