Stonewalling or taking a break? How do I notice the Difference?
When couples get into arguments, a common behavior that derails effective communication is called stonewalling. This occurs when a person becomes flooded with emotion and chooses to utilize the “flight” portion of the “fight or flight” response.
“Flight” can be anything from actually fleeing the room (maybe with a door slam or middle finger to add emphasis) to giving the “silent treatment.” We have all been there.
It is perfectly reasonable to disengage when you have had too much but it must be done with care in order to preserve the respect and dignity that relationships need. I instruct couples to utilize self-awareness to know when they need a break. Ideally, stepping aside to cool off is done by stating why you can not engage at the moment and a time when to return and try to sort out the problem in a more respectful way.
What typically happens is that couples slam the door shut on communication, usually leaving the other person out in the cold. This comes in several forms including: ignoring, only communicating in disingenuous ways (sarcasm, stubbornness), leaving without saying where you are going or when you will be back, or refusing to acknowledge the other person’s point of view.
These behaviors are harmful to relationships and should be avoided as much as possible. The antidote to stone walling, according to Dr. John Gottman, is to practice self-regulation. Essentially, it is knowing when you are past your limit. Often, it can be measured by a heart rate of 100+ beats per minute. Another way to look at it is knowing personal signs that you know mean you are very angry. Most people have signs like, tightness in the neck or chest, a feeling of heat in the face or abdomen, a deep feeling of dread, etc…
When you can manage it, simply say you need a break and try to meet up again within one hour. This lets the other person know you aren’t abandoning the issue or “getting off easy.” With consent on both sides, a little break can prevent a painful blowout.