The Four Horsemen of the Marital Apocalypse, Part Four: Stonewalling

Stonewalling is toxic to relationships.

Contributors to Marital Apocalypse Series

For the past year, Paul and Amy’s marriage has been on the rocks. Most of their conversations turn into arguments. They are so tuned-in to negativity that it takes very little to set either of them off. Neither validates nor empathizes with the other, and Criticism, Defensiveness, and Contempt scourges most of their communication. Paul begins to shut down from exhaustion due to Amy’s attacks. He stops listening to her and responds less and less. Often he simply does not react at all. Amy accuses Paul of shutting her out, and she tells Paul that talking to him is like “talking to a brick wall.” As a result, communication stops, and repairing hurts and solving problems become nearly impossible. Stonewalling, the fourth of John Gottman’s Four Horses of The Marital Apocalypse, has entered the marriage.

The Fourth Horseman: Stonewalling

What Stonewalling Is, And What It Isn’t

Common characteristics of normal, healthy communication include eye contact, facial expressions, nodding, and brief words such as uh-huh, yeah, and hmmm. These behaviors show that the listener is tracking with the speaker. In addition, they communicate that the listener is engaged and attentive.

A person who stonewalls doesn’t display any of these behaviors. Instead, the stonewaller withdraws and instead of talking. They give off stony silence and often leave the room. They look away and down from the speaker. They give brief, monitoring glances that suggest that the stonewaller is checking to see if the evil harpy shrew spouse is still there and for how much longer. They keep a stiff neck and control their facial expressions that are sometimes indicated by tightening of the jaw or chin. The stonewaller uses few words, if they vocalize anything at all. It is as if they are “gone.” Their behaviors liken them to an impervious stone wall: cold, hard, unmovable, and inanimate.

The Male-Female Difference

According to Gottman’s research, men are more likely to stonewall than women. Men often stonewall because they are emotionally flooded and physiologically hyper-aroused. Withdrawing is an attempt to self-soothe and calm down. Many men stonewall in an effort to remain neutral and avoid escalating conflict. In reality, when a husband stonewalls, the wife’s heart rate spikes dramatically because she feels disapproval and a cold distance. Stonewalling is extremely distressing for women. They often feel panic about the relationship and, in turn, they might pursue their husbands with more criticism or contempt, or they might back down and try to repair the relationship. If the stonewaller doesn’t react, makes monosyllabic sounds or words, changes the subject, or leaves the room, the message is the same: they are withdrawing and ceasing any meaningful communication. If there’s no communication, then it’s hard to have and heal a marriage.

Stonewalling occurs in intense moments in all marriages. If habitually present, it’s a real problem. Remember Paul and Amy from our example? They experience years of criticism, defensiveness, contempt, heightened negativity, and poor communication that leads to no communication. Paul’s tendency to stonewall is habitual. The good news is that the story doesn’t have to end here. It is possible to move past the cycle of negativity and repair the relationship.

Learn To Calm Down

Since stonewalling largely happens because a person experiences physiological hyper-arousal, calming down is the first step to reversing this pattern of behavior. Learn to recognize when you feel overwhelmed and intentionally calm yourself down. It’s crucial that you keep your heart rate at a normal level. Check your pulse every five minutes or so to know where you are. Once your heart rate reaches 100 beats per minute, it’s time to take a break. That may mean you take a time-out, step away from the conversation for about 20-30 minutes (yes, it really takes this long!), and self-soothe with breathing or mindfulness exercises that will lower your heart rate and help your brain think, not react.

When you are in a flooded, fight-or-flight state, you will probably fall back on old behaviors, and you might say things you’ll regret later. During your break, do an activity that is calming to you – ride your bike, take a bath, listen to music, read the Bible, etc. Pay attention to your thoughts during this time. If you spend your break thinking about how angry you are at your spouse and the choice language you’re going to use when you tell them off, you’ll only maintain your level of distress. Instead, turn your thoughts to more positive things about yourself, your spouse, and the argument. Try to put things in a bigger perspective.

It can be difficult to focus your thoughts and move away from mentally rehearsing your anger when you’re flooded, and relaxation exercises may be an additional way to physically calm down.

  • Breathing Exercises:
    Focusing on your breath, breathe in through your nose for four counts, hold your breath for seven counts, and breathe out through your mouth for eight counts. An easy way to remember this one is by the number of counts for each step, 4-7-8.
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation:
    Systematically tense and then release the major muscle groups in your body. Go slowly through your body, working your way through muscle groups going from top to bottom or bottom to top.
  • Aerobic Exercise:
    Get your pulse rate up for about 10 minutes, and then allow for it to naturally come down. The goal is to get your ending pulse rate to be lower than it was when you started.

It’s Not Too Late to Repair a Marriage

A marriage is a living thing which requires nurturing, attention, and nourishment. Even if your relationship got off track somewhere, it’s not too late. The Four Horsemen are insidious villains working to decay a union that is meant for good and for God’s glory. The words of C. S. Lewis could describe existence inside a dying marriage:

“Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others… but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God “sending us” to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud. ”

Toxic Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling can become your ongoing “grumble,” but they are a malignant growth you can curtail. You don’t have to wait on your spouse to change; you get to decide how you’re going to contribute to your relationship regardless of what your spouse does. That’s good news – you can work to change, grow, or maintain a loving, thriving relationship. You can nip toxicity in the bud.

Are you experiencing any of the Four Horsemen in your relationship and need help? Contact us to make an appointment with Caty Coffey.


Gottman, John M. The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.

Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail… and How You Can Make Yours Last. New York: Fireside, 1994.