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The Tampa Bay Guide to Couples Counseling: Circumventing Stonewalling: Identifying and Overcoming the Fourth Horseman

By January 31, 2023December 18th, 2023Integrated Care Clinic

If you feel like your relationship is in need of support, it is important to take a look at whether you are perpetuating or experiencing any maladaptive communicative behaviors. One method that might assist couples identify maladaptive communication behaviors is the Gottman Method, developed by Drs. John and Julie Gottman, which is an evidenced-based couples therapy approach that is based on hundreds of scientific studies performed on over 3000 couples. The Gottman Method has identified four specific behaviors that can destroy relationships, and named them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. Previous blog posts have focused on contempt and criticism, which are very destructive to relationships. Stonewalling is lesser known but can be just as problematic when it occurs in conversations. 

What is Stonewalling?

Have you ever been in a conversation where you feel like the person you are interacting with has completely shut down? It is possible that you may be on the receiving end of someone who is stonewalling. You can recognize stonewalling in someone else when that person is physically present in the conversation but is completely withdrawn. They are not giving or receiving any cues that they are paying attention. It’s very likely that you might have personal experience stonewalling yourself! Signs that you are stonewalling include not giving cues that you’re listening (no head nods, no eye contact, crossing your arms, and looking away). 

What is happening during stonewalling?

When someone is stonewalling, that person is typically flooded and is in a state known as diffuse physiological arousal (DPA). This means that that person is starting to shut down emotionally and physically. This might include going into the fight or flight response, including having a racing heart, feeling very tense, sweating, trembling, or shaking. People in DPA are in a state where they cannot listen or have a productive conversation, and also cannot give or receive affection. 

Identifying the Antidote to Stonewalling 

The first step when someone in a partnership is stonewalling is to take a break. While this may sound like you are ‘giving in’ to the argument or you may feel like this is getting in the way of continuing the conversation, it is important to remember that it is impossible to have a productive conversation when someone is flooded.

Breaks should last around 30 minutes because it takes around 30 minutes for someone to be able to get out of the flooded feeling. It is possible that 30 minutes might not be enough, and it is acceptable for breaks to take longer. However, a hard limit should be set at 24 hours to ensure that both people will return to the conversation. 

Either partner can initiate a break. For instance, if you yourself feel flooded, you can say something like “I am feeling overwhelmed and need to take a break. Can we continue this in 25 minutes?”. If you notice your partner is stonewalling, you can offer it as a suggestion to your partner. You can also come up with a keyword, phrase, or signal with your partner that means that one of you needs a break. 

What should happen during the break?  

During the break, practice physiological self-soothing

Self soothing can look differently for different people. Here are some ideas:

  • Use visualization to imagine a place where you feel safe and grounded. This can be a real place you’ve been to or a place you’ve read about in a book or seen in a movie. This could be your bedroom, the beach, or being in a forest. 
  • Use Progressive Muscle Relaxation 
    • Instructions:
      • Focus on tensing or relaxing all of your muscles. 
      • On each inhale, squeeze all of the muscles in one area of your body, and while squeezing and inhaling, count to four.
      • Then, exhale slowly and relax the muscles you’ve been squeezing. 
        • Pay attention to the differences between tension and relaxation. 
      • After about 5 seconds, move your attention to another part of your body and repeat. 
  • Soothe yourself by targeting each of your senses. Some examples:
    • With vision
      • Look at pictures that bring you pleasure
      • Watch a candle flame
      • Look at nature 
      • Take a walk
    • With Hearing
      • Listen to calming music
      • Listen to sounds in nature 
      • Be mindful of noises in your surrounding
    • With Smell
      • Light a candle 
      • Notice smells on a walk
      • Use a soap/lotion and notice the smells 
      • Smell something in the kitchen 
    • With Taste
      • Eat something that makes you happy 
      • Focus on mindful eating by sucking on a mint 
      • Drink a soothing drink
    • With Touch
      • Take a bath or shower
      • Pet your dog or cat
      • Wrap yourself in a blanket


Additionally, during this break you should not be ruminating on the argument. Try to think about anything else, because if you spend time thinking about the argument you will end up working yourself up even more and will be less able to re-enter the conversation calmly. 

Once you or your partner is feeling calmer, it is time to return to the conversation at hand. Hopefully now neither of you will be engaging in stonewalling and will be able to continue the conversation without engaging in any of the four horseman.

What if my relationship needs more support?

If you would like more support on how to identify the four horsemen and strengthen your relationship, please reach out to me, Dr. Hannah Gilfix. Using the Gottman Method, I can work with you and your partner to strengthen and rebuild the friendship in your relationship, learn how to use more effective communication strategies, and figure out how to manage conflicts that seem to never go away.


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