The Four Horsemen and the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling—Part 4

Today, we wrap up the four-part series in which we’ve learned about Gottman’s Four Horsemen and his approach to couples therapy. The last remaining of The Four Horsemen leaves us with Stonewalling, which typically occurs in response to the combined impact of contempt and any of the other Four Horsemen. Feeling continually criticized, disrespected, insulted, flooded with excuses or blame and otherwise belittled can cause many of us to shut down and turn away from conflict. Engaging in stonewalling occurs when the listener in a discussion or conflict completely withdraws from the conversation, via shutting down and refusing to engage with the other person. At times, it can be understandable to respond in such a manner. However, over time, stonewalling becomes an increasingly automatic response to conflict and can be very challenging to stop.

Stonewalling often creates significant challenges in relationships, in that it serves to allow avoidance of challenges and concerns, and in turn, hinders communication and progress. Partners that engage in stonewalling often exhibit a variety of evasive behaviors, such as tuning out, acting as though they are busy or distracted, or generally ignoring their partner and giving them an extreme version of the “cold shoulder”.

How Did We Get Here?

Stonewalling often occurs due to one partner reaching a point where they feel completely overwhelmed or overcome by their thoughts and emotions, while engaged in a difficult conversation. When these feelings reach their peak, referred to as physiological flooding, one partner tends to push to abruptly end a conversation while the other continues to push or force the issue. In response to this, both parties find may themselves locked in a sort of stalemate in which neither is sure of how to communicate their needs and feelings in an effective manner. Often times, in an effort to approach things in a calmer manner, our instinct may be to offer or ask for time apart to calm down. However, many couples misuse this time apart and find themselves engaging in what Gottman refers to as “self-righteous indignation”, defined by silently stewing in anger, ruminating over how we were wronged by our partner. As a result, we instead spend the time apart becoming angrier and less rational, before coming back together to discuss the issue (If we can even get back there at all). In these moments, it’s easy to begin to see your partner as the problem, rather than your partner in life whom you can call on to face a problem together. Over time, couples may begin to become very sensitive to perceived non-verbal cues which results in a slow erosion of trust and intimacy.

What Can You Do About It?
When it comes to approaching conflict or tough topics in discussions, timing is everything. Be mindful not to shut things down prematurely. In order to have a healthy relationship, it’s essential to do your best to stand by your partner in these difficult times, so as to reinforce the idea that you’re a team, united and ready to tackle challenges together head on—rather than aimed at each other, ready to strike, on opposite sides of the field.

This can be achieved by doing your best to listen, truly listen to your partner, in a non-defensive manner. This means that in those moments where you need some room to breathe, you’re spending the time calmly processing the situation and considering your partner’s perspective and feelings, rather than focusing on finding somewhere to lay the blame. Be mindful of your non-verbal cues, such as nodding your head and maintaining eye contact. Making the effort to monitor your facial expressions and body language can significantly increase the likelihood of a productive conversation and keep defensive reactions at bay.

As a couple, it can be a challenge to walk the line. In order to effectively address patterns of conflict that lead to stonewalling, both parties must learn to be able to manage low-level conflict, while also recognizing when time and space are needed. Furthermore, it is essential to learn strategies geared toward self-monitoring of negative self-talk that can amplify anger and frustration and trigger a loss of control. When feeling flooded, our instinct make be to vent to a friend or family member in order to seek validation and support. Instead, challenge yourself to channel your discomfort into something unrelated or productive. Go for a walk, fold the laundry, spend time with your pets, or do literally anything that takes your mind off the conflict in order to restore a sense of calm. Once you have both decided to take a break and you have used that to effectively regain emotional control, the next step is choosing to come back together as a team to tackle the problem. It’s important to be mindful of time, in that “timeouts” can’t last forever. Gottman suggests taking a minimum of 20 minutes but be careful not to exceed that by too long. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating an emotional standoff in which no one wins and anger and resentment brews.

When you come back together, don’t put too much stock in whomever initiated reconnecting. Do your best to not get stuck on who reinitiates contact. Often times in relationships, there is one partner whom is more comfortable being the pursuer and one whom is less comfortable initiating confrontation. This is not a reflection of love v. rejection, but rather, likely some innate or learned responses to conflict management and/or individual personality traits. Instead, challenge yourself to shift your focus to reconnection and moving forward. Push yourself to be mindful of using “I” statements and avoid blaming language at all costs. An open and respectful team approach to problem solving fosters deeper love and connection in relationships. With practice, it is possible to regain a sense of both self-awareness and awareness of your partners needs and perspective in times of conflict, allowing us to break the ineffective communication habits that often end in stonewalling.

Lisitsa, E. (2013). The four horsemen: Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/

Lusignan, K. (2017). Love smarter by learning when to take a break. Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/blog/love-smarter-learning-take-break/


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