Have you ever been in an argument with your partner and it’s as if they’re not even in the room? Of course they are sitting there and they may even be staring back at you but when it comes to the conversation, any progress has been completely halted. Overtime, I’ve come to learn that there is quite a bit happening internally for your partner during these instances. Why are they shutting down? What are they thinking about? And for me, the most important question I generally have when this emerges is “do they even care?”
John Gottman, A well known relationship expert and therapist, defined this behavior as “stonewalling.” I have to say, it’s a brilliant term because the term describes the behavior in and of itself. Stonewalling occurs when someone is involved in a conflict where they become so emotionally overwhelmed that they shut down physiologically. For men, it often presents as a physical turning away from their partner and avoiding eye contact. They may make general responses such as “okay” or “uh huh” but are no longer contributing to the conversation. For women, it can look quite different and generally presents as them staring directly at you without being present and engaged, almost as if they internally exited the room. Interestingly enough, if you were to monitor the heart rate during this time (as John Gottman did in his research) you would see that in instances of stonewalling, peoples heart rate often displayed above 100 bpm. Wow.
What I learned from this is that when partners engage in stonewalling, they do care. In fact, they care a great deal to the point of experiencing intense emotional overwhelm resulting in physiological symptoms similar to fight or flight.
The question then becomes, how can we support our partners when they are prone to stonewall? Will the conversation lead to any productive outcome if you continue to engage in the conversation despite noticing that they have disengaged from the conversation? My answer this question is arguably no. When someone is in a state of fight or flight, reason, critical thinking, and empathy go right out the window. This individual is in a state of self protection and survival. So, as their partner, it is your job to respond accordingly. This may mean that you need to offer to step back, to take pause, or to allow space for that person to emotionally regulate.
If instead, you are the person who finds that they tend to be the one who stonewalls during conflict, it is your job to ask for space or to share that you are feeling overwhelmed. Ask yourself what you are needing at this time and act accordingly. No positive resolution will come from continuing to sit in fight or flight, overwhelmed to the point of being unable to contribute to any meaningful resolution.