Now that you’ve learned about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Dr. John Gottman – one of the Top 10 Most Influential Therapists, let’s review Stonewalling. Unfortunately, this is my go to behavior during an argument. During the first few years of our marriage, I would go into what my husband, Russ, called a “funk.” From his perspective, I was avoiding the argument and punishing him with my silence.
Growing up I wasn’t allowed to be angry, fight back or have any negative feelings. Literally we would be punished and told to put a smile on our face. As I look back now, I can see how it made my parents uncomfortable to see their kids hurting so in an effort to make them feel better we were told to buck up and smile. Over time you learn not to listen to your feelings and you’re conditioned to no longer argue back…even if you are correct. Bring that into a marriage!
IN THE BEGINNING…
Shortly after we were married, I, Danielle, would shut down every time Russ and I argued. Not only did this frustrate him but we never resolved anything. I felt trapped. In the past, I would just slowly move away from someone I had conflict with but now being married I lost my exit strategy. Does this sound familiar to any of you?
We would spend the next few days, sometimes weeks, talking only about logistics. Little did I know when I shut down that I had a scowl on my face. He knew something was wrong even thought I kept saying I was “fine.” Meaning I was
- F – frustrated
- I – irritated
- N – not
- E – engaging
During these arguments, I literally have no words because I am so flooded. Psychologist John Gottman explains this emotional hijacking as the hallmark of our nervous system in overdrive. Something happens — and it could be almost anything — in your interaction with your partner that sets off your internal threat-detection system. This is your parasympathetic nervous system in action, preparing you for battle or flight. In this state, you lose some of your capacity for rational thought.
Initially, it was hard for Russ to understand my lack of engagement in our arguments until he understood my version of fighting was to flee. I have no words, I can’t think straight and I need to protect myself. I honestly thought I was being the nice partner in our marriage because I wasn’t arguing. I was hurt and needed to retreat. However, as mentioned before, this behavior looked like punishment to Russ. During counseling I learned that my behavior was a natural protectant against conflict but it also is one of the 4 predictors of divorce. Ouch!!
It wasn’t until a friend, through a series of misunderstandings, did the same stonewalling to me did I understand how painful it is to be on the other side of someone shutting down on you. So how do you break this habitual pattern? We came up with a compromise. Because I need time to process, Russ will give me space but it comes with a promise we will discuss the argument within 24 hours. This lessens his anxiety about not resolving an argument and it allows me to engage in a conversation when I’m not flooded.
A side note about counseling…we realize there is still a stigma about counseling = they must have serious marriage problems but we’ve taken a proactive life coach approach and love having this wisdom in our relationship. If I was to measure the success of going to counseling the past 15 years, two takeaways would be the compassion I have for Russ when I don’t like his behavior (and vice versa!) and the fact I can resolve arguments within the moment as opposed to taking weeks to address.
Does it surprise you that stonewalling is one of the four predictors of divorce? I sure was! Comment below.
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