Happy Monday! Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we continue our series devoted to Dr. Gottman’s Four Horsemen with the last, but certainly not least, horseman: Stonewalling.

If you’re more of a visual learner, we have provided you with a short clip with an explanation of stonewalling from Dr. Gottman, as well as an example of what it looks like. (skip to :56)

Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction, shutting down and closing themselves off from the speaker because they are feeling overwhelmed or physiologically flooded. Rather than confronting the issue, someone who is stonewalling will be totally unresponsive, making evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive behaviors. It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable “out,” but when it does, it frequently becomes a habit.

Trying to communicate with someone who is acting in this way can be frustrating, and if the stonewalling continues, completely infuriating.

When you are making every effort to address a problem, whether you are attempting to talk about something that is upsetting you, explain your feelings about an ongoing area of conflict, or try to reach a resolution –  and your partner is pretending that you aren’t there – you are likely to reach a level of upset or anger so high that you psychologically and emotionally “check out” as well.

The first part of the antidote to experiencing this extreme unpleasantness is to STOP.

The second step is to practice physiological self soothing.

If you learn to do these things when your conversations become fights and tempers flare, you can keep your relationship from experiencing repeated and deeply destructive stress and save yourself and your partner from going nuts.

Sound promising? Read on.

When to stop:
When things escalate to a level where you sense yourself reaching your boiling point (that feeling of a kettle whistling inside of you, and steam ready to come out of your ears), it’s time to take yourself off the flame! The same goes for your partner.

Let each other know when you’re feeling overwhelmed, and say that you need to take a break. This break should last at least twenty minutes, since it will take that much time for your bodies to physiologically calm down.

How to self-soothe:
It is crucial that during this time you avoid thoughts of righteous indignation (“I don’t have to take this anymore!”) and innocent victimhood (“Why is he always picking on me?”). Spend your time doing something soothing and distracting, like listening to music, reading a book, or taking a walk around the block.

The Four Horsemen typically come as a sequence of interactions that start with criticism and spill over into defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. As Dr. Gottman emphasizes in hisNew York Times bestselling book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, the really important thing to keep in mind is that even in happy, stable, and successful marriages and relationships, the four horsemen all occur. No couple is perfect! The difference is that in those marriages they don’t occur as frequently, and when they do, those couples are more effective at repairing them.

Look forward to our posts this Wednesday and Friday, in which we will delve further into our discussion of stonewalling, flooding, and physiological self-soothing. In the meantime, join us on Facebook for daily relationship tips and reminders!

More in The Four Horsemen
The Four Horsemen: Stonewalling
Ellie Lisitsa

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.