Withdrawing or Shutting Down

In the past few weeks, I have written about John Gottman’s theories behind criticism, contempt, and defensiveness in relationships. There is one more common issue Gottman warns couples about: stonewalling. Typically, with enough criticism, contempt, and defensiveness taking place in a relationship, one partner begins to shut down and disengage from the relationship as a way to cope. Like an impenetrable stone wall, this partner sits silently, without making eye contact, nodding, or showing any outward sign of acknowledgement to their critical and/or contemptuous partner. This partner also tends to be the one to withdraw by walking away as conflict rises. While I have seen both genders display stonewalling behavior in my experience working with couples, I have found men more likely to be stonewallers in a relationship.

Imagine this scenario:

Joseph comes home from work. Anna greets him with things she is unhappy about or things he has done wrong. Joseph plops on the couch and turns the TV on, remaining completely silent, and appearing to tune out Anna’s words. When she probes, he may turn to say, “Okay”, but continue to appear expressionless and emotionless, as though he does not care. Other times, he gets up and walks away from her.

In this scenario, Joseph has stonewalled. Gottman explains stonewalling as a response to feeling flooded (Gottman & Silver, 2000). He refers to flooding as the overwhelming physiological and psychological response felt by a person when they feel attacked, leading to the mind and body eventually learning to shut down, or stonewall, as a way to protect themselves from the flooding sensation. To understand this biologically, the central nervous system becomes activated due to the acute stress a person experiences when they feel attacked, causing a rush of hormones to release in the body resulting in increased blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. From an evolutionary standpoint, the body gears up for a fight, flight, or freeze response to perceived danger. Thus, stonewalling can be viewed as a survival response. 

Unfortunately, this response makes the other partner feel more desperate to be heard, so they up the ante instead of backing down. This in turn causes the stonewalling partner to shut down even more, creating a vicious cycle. If this sounds like your partner, pay attention to how you are approaching them right before they seem to shut down. As outlined in the section on criticism, starting any discussion with a criticism is most likely to result in an unproductive, unresolved, or unresponsive interaction. Instead, consider starting the conversation more gently with your partner, especially around sensitive areas. Find a good time when your partner is less likely to be tired, overwhelmed, or caught off guard, and more likely to be open to a discussion. Sometimes, it helps to set a time to talk. Try saying something like, 

“I am feeling frustrated and want to talk to you about something important. I can see you are tired right now and I want to give you some space. Would you be willing to sit with me later tonight when you feel more rested? Or if tonight is not a good time, please let me know what is a better time for you.” 

When you do find a good time to talk, express yourself with a complaint – not criticism. If you are the stonewalling partner, you may be wondering what you’re supposed to do instead of shutting down when your partner seems to be angry and attacking you. I recommend developing skills of self-awareness and self-regulation to help you remain present and respond more effectively to your partner. Self-regulation is an equally important skill to develop if you are the more critical or contemptuous partner.

To understand the difference between a complaint and a criticism, click here.

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