If there was a test that would tell you if your marriage would end in divorce, would you want to take it? Therapist Dr. John Gottman has spent 40 years studying married couples and analyzing why some marriages end and others don’t. His research is able to predict with 90% accuracy whether a marriage will last.
Communication is Key
All of Gottman’s research indicates that the key to a healthy marriage is good communication. Marriages with communication problems are most likely to fail.
Gottman has identified four key communication problems that make a marriage most likely to end in divorce:
Marriages with these issues are likely to end in divorce within 5.6 years. Gottman’s research also shows that most couples wait six years before seeking help with their marriage. Therefore, many marriages result in divorce before a couple is even able to go to a therapist to get help with their communication issues.
Stonewalling is the Poison Pill
Of these four communication issues, stonewalling is the problem that is the most dangerous to a marriage and most likely to lead to divorce. Stonewalling occurs when during an argument, one spouse shuts down emotionally. The stonewalling spouse stops communicating and puts up an emotional wall so they can’t be reached.
Stonewalling can include behaviors such as:
- They pretend they can’t hear you
- They won’t answer when you talk to them or ask them questions
- They act as if they are too busy to engage with you
- They change the topic when they feel any criticism
- They redirect conversations to focus on the faults of the other spouse
The stonewalling spouse does not engage emotionally at all. The other spouse then experiences high levels of frustration and anger because the stonewaller will not listen or respond to them – or sometimes even acknowledge them or their concerns.
The stonewaller may appear that they are cold and detached, but they are actually experiencing an overwhelming amount of emotions. They shut down to try to manage those feelings, which feel insurmountable to them at the moment.
The emotional storm also causes physical symptoms such as:
- Increase in heart rate
- Increase in stress hormones
- Development of a fight or flight response
Most stonewallers in Gottman’s studies are men: 85% of those who exhibited this were male. When a male spouse exhibits stonewalling, if their spouse is female, she is likely to also then experience similar physiological responses to the stonewalling itself, placing both spouses in a state of high stress.
Help for Stonewalling
If you recognize stonewalling is an issue in your marriage, there are things you can do to prevent it from bringing you to divorce.
- Take a break. When the stonewaller starts to experience that overwhelming flood of emotions, both partners need to recognize that it’s time to take a break. Stop the discussion for at least 20 minutes. Although Gottman advises stopping the discussion, there has to be some communication about needing to do this. Simply walking away without explanation by either party will simply escalate things. Gottman recommends couples develop a signal or a word they can use as a sign that stonewalling is happening and it’s time to step away. This signal then pauses the conversation in a healthy way.
- Pay attention to your feelings. Observing your own behavior and physical and emotional responses to situations can help you notice what triggers you to stonewall. Once you can identify how you feel when the stonewalling starts, you can learn to take a break before it becomes a full-blown reaction.
- Practice self-soothing. The spouse who exhibits stonewalling can practice self-soothing techniques to use when they sense that stonewalling is about to happen. Breathing exercises, full-body relaxation, and visualization can help reduce the emotional and physiological symptoms and stop the stonewalling behavior. Taking a break from the argument to self-soothe can de-escalate the conflict.
- Simplify your arguments. Stonewalling can often be a response to an overwhelming situation. You can prevent stonewalling by isolating issues and discussing them one at a time. Complex arguments are more likely to result in stonewalling than piece-by-piece discussions.
- Avoid arguments when tired. Exhaustion can exacerbate arguments and escalate them to the point where they become overwhelming, which can then lead to stonewalling. Learn to walk away from arguments when one or both of you is tired.
- Be open about your feelings. If you have felt dismissed or ignored in the past when you have expressed feelings to your spouse, you may have trained yourself to hold them in and stonewall instead of sharing them because you fear the same reaction. This actually causes more harm than good. Instead, be open about what you’re feeling and thinking and give your spouse a chance to really engage with you.
If you or your spouse experience stonewalling, it is a good idea to see a licensed therapist who can help you understand and manage the feelings and reactions that stem from it. Here are some great marriage counselors in Westchester County, Nassau County, and Manhattan.