Why He Checks Out

In the past few weeks, we have discussed John Gottman’s theories behind criticism, contempt, and defensiveness in relationships. There is one more common issue he warns couples about: stonewalling. Typically, with enough criticism, contempt, and defensiveness taking place in a relationship, one spouse begins to disengage from the relationship as a way to cope. Like an impenetrable stone wall, the stonewalling spouse is the one who sits silently, without making eye contact, nodding, or showing any outward sign of acknowledgement to their critical and/or contemptuous spouse.

Based on my experiences working with couples, men are the most likely to be stonewallers in a relationship.

Imagine this scene:

Husband comes home from work. Wife greets him with things she is unhappy about or things he has done wrong. The husband plops on the couch, turns on the TV, remains completely silent, and appears to have tuned out his wife. When the wife probes, he may turn to say, “Okay”, but continue to appear expressionless and emotionless, as though he does not care. Other times, he may walk away from his wife.

In this scenario, the husband has stonewalled. Gottman explains how flooding, the overwhelming physiological and psychological response felt by a person when they feel attacked, leads to the mind and body eventually learning to shut down, or stonewall, as a way to protect themselves from the flooding. To understand this biologically, the central nervous system becomes activated due to the acute stress a person experiences when he or she feels 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-or-flight response to perceived danger. Thus, stonewalling can be viewed as a flight response. Unfortunately, this response makes the other spouse, usually the wife, feel desperate to be heard, so she ups the ante instead of backing down. This in turn causes the husband to shut down even more, creating a vicious cycle.

So, how do you break this cycle? Think back to the time we discussed criticism. Starting any discussion with a criticism is most likely to result in an unproductive and unresolved conversation. Instead, consider starting the conversation more gently with your spouse, especially around sensitive areas. Find a good time, when your spouse is less likely to be tired or upset 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 time to decompress. 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. To understand the difference between a complaint and a criticism, read my blog, Are you Guilty of Criticizing Your Partner?

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