Stonewalling is the fourth and final of John Gottman’s famous Four Horsemen. It also happens to be the negative attitude that shows up later after the cycle of criticism, contempt, and defensiveness has been spinning in the relationship for a while. As I mention in an earlier post this week, stonewalling often happens because the negative conflict cycle has become emotionally and physiologically unbearable for the partner who is on the receiving end of the criticism and contempt. We call this physiologically unbearable phenomenon “flooding” because it involves an overflow of involuntary physiological and psychological responses to the perceived threat coming from the attacking spouse. What looks like mule-headed stubbornness is often just a basic, practically unconscious attempt to self-protect.

It’s important to note that stonewalling may occur in a relationship where there hasn’t been a lot of criticism, contempt, or defensiveness. If this is true in your relationship, it may be that the stonewalling partner has experienced emotional or physical trauma in the past, and your current conflicts are triggering an emotional dissociation in response. You may be doing everything right in confronting your partner or broaching areas of conflict, but your partner is still frozen in a state of high alert from earlier trauma — trauma they may not even be consciously aware of. If you see this happening in your relationship, I recommend you seek professional help from a marriage therapist who understands and knows how to work with trauma of this sort.

Friday, I’ll post another exercise designed to help reduce criticism and contempt in your relationship.

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