The silent treatment. Picture this, you’ve had an argument or disagreement and you try to talk about it with your spouse. But they turn away from you, or refuse to talk, or leave the house and you are left feeling angry and confused. Have you ever had this happen to you? Have you ever been the one to leave, or to go silent?
Although this may not seem like a rational response (and it isn’t) this situation actually happens a lot in marriage. In fact John Gottman, a pioneer in the field of Marriage and Family Therapy, studied this phenomena and how to work through it. Here we are going to talk about the silent treatment and stonewalling, how to tell the difference, and how to overcome these setbacks to help your marriage become better than ever!
Flooding the Brain
Stressful situations activate our brain, in what psychologists and neurobiologists alike call the fight, flight, or freeze response. They theorize this happens due to our ancestors’ need to survive against physical threats, which were usually life threatening (like a lion attack). When the lion attacked, the people who could react quickly survived. Our brains learned to divert resources from the higher-level thinking parts of our brains to adrenaline rushes and quick decision making. It is only after calming down that our brains can return to processing the more complex phenomena of emotions.
This process makes sense when you are getting attacked by a lion, but it is harder to understand when we are in a fight with our spouse. High stress situations still activate our fight, flight, or freeze response through our amygdala. Some therapists call this flooding, as a bunch of hormones flood into our brian and change our brain chemistry. In this state, we are less able to think critically, as it was for our ancestors, but in our case, there’s no enemy to flee from or fight. Each individual may react differently, hence fight, flight, OR freeze. We are likely to look for any way out of the situation, including just walking away. In these situations, our brains need to switch back to our prefrontal cortex (which is where our conscious thought comes from) before we can really process our present emotion.
So now we understand why we don’t always act rationally when we are in a high stress situation. For some, the stress causes a freeze response–when the brain cannot find a way out, it freezes. This is what John Gottman calls “stonewalling.” The chemical flooding causes the conscious part of our brain to shut off and we emotionally withdraw from the situation. A stonewalling spouse will refuse to respond and even just leave the situation entirely. While our brain is technically trying to protect us, it’s actually putting our marriage in danger. In fact, Gottman describes excessive stonewalling as one of the “4 Horsemen” that signal a marital apocalypse.
The Silent Treatment vs Stonewalling
Now you may be thinking, this sounds a lot like the silent treatment. And you are not wrong. Stonewalling and giving the silent treatment both look very similar. Your spouse disengages from the conversation (and from you) and remains silent. This can be extremely frustrating.
The difference in definition is that the silent treatment is purposeful. As described on Gottman’s website, we give the silent treatment when (on some level) we want to hurt our spouse. This could be because we are feeling hurt and want to protect ourselves by attacking. We can use the silence to convey disapproval, distance, and separation. Stonewalling, however, is a more involuntary response. Our brains are flooded to the point where we are literally incapable of moving forward. People in this situation will need to find a way to calm down before they can proceed.
Some professionals may disagree with me on the difference between the two. The truth is that in the moment, it’s hard to tell if it’s the silent treatment or stonewalling. Both of the processes can happen in a relationship, and often even happen at the same time. For our purposes, it is not super useful to split hairs on the difference as both of these have the same cure!
Breaking Down the Wall
So, if this process of stonewalling is (to an extent) involuntary, how do we stop it from harming our marriages? The key is physiological self-soothing. Stonewalling is about our brain chemistry and the flooding that happens in stressful situations. It becomes a problem when there is a pattern of stonewalling that is never repaired. Therefore, we need a solution that will help our brains to realize we are not in danger and turn back on our conscious mind so we can repair these moments. The stonewalling spouse cannot rely on their spouse to sooth them–it is their responsibility. If you have experienced this situation, here are the steps to overcoming stonewalling. Try these tips and personalize with any other strategy that helps you to be mindful and calm.
Call for a Timeout
With your brain flooded, you will need time to switch back before you can have a productive conversation. However, just leaving can lead to confusion, frustration, and hurt. Your spouse will be left wondering what is going on and if you are coming back. Therefore, the two of you need to create a system that will allow you to take a step away, knowing you will come back.
- Signal a Time-Out: some couples will simply ask for a time out, others find it hard to be verbal when their brain is flooded so they come up with a hand signal or some other method to signal they need a break.
- Break: set an amount of time for you to de-escalate. Studies show it takes at least 20 minutes for our brain chemistry to return to normal functioning. Find an amount of time that works for you.
- Self-Sooth: Just sitting and stewing is not going to help your brain feel less stressed. You and your spouse may both need to come up with an activity you can do to help calm down. Mindfulness is one of the best ways to self-sooth, often through a meditation practice. Some feel like meditation is not for them, and that’s okay! There are so many ways you can practice mindfulness that aren’t traditional meditation. Check out our post on mindfulness to learn more. Sometimes just moving your body helps work out some of the stress, so you can also go for a walk or bike ride or whatever form of movement you prefer!
- Don’t Disengage Completely: Sometimes, it may take hours to feel unflooded. It is so important that your spouse knows you are still engaged in the relationship in some way during that period. See what little efforts you can put in; maybe it’s still packing them a lunch, or writing a note explaining you still love them. When you are ready to come back, affirm how much you care and are committed to the relationship.
The silent treatment can be a result of our brain flooding, activating our primal freeze response. To stop this process from wearing away on our marriage, we must practice self-soothing and being mindful of our body and mind. We cannot ignore the problem and hope it will go away. We must actively work to turn on our logical brain so we can be available to work with our spouse. If you need help with stonewalling, seek professional help or reach out to our GYMO coach Dan Purcell.