When in the midst of an argument with your partner, do you notice moments where you might shut down? As if you’re physically there but mentally you are long gone? Maybe instead of engaging in the argument with your partner, you start zoning out, avoiding eye contact, yelling uncontrollably, or displaying with your body that you are disengaged. You may be stonewalling. Stonewalling is when you are physiologically overwhelmed with a racing heart beat and unconsciously holding your breath. This can happen when you are feeling attacked by your partner or you’re simply overwhelmed by the conflict. Think of it as your body’s way of trying to protect you from getting hurt by shutting down, shifting gears to fight, freeze, or flight mode.
How does this impact your partner?
Your partner may not realize what’s happening inside of you in this moment. They may view your behavior as being dismissive, rude and are left feeling uncared for. This may stir an even stronger reaction, as they may view this disconnect as a power move or direct attack on them. As a result, stonewalling can unintentionally escalate a conflict.
When you notice that your mind begins to drift somewhere else during a conflict; you feel like you are not in control of your body or want to crawl into a ball and hide under your bed, this is the perfect time to call a time out! When you are stonewalling, there is not a whole lot that can be accomplished as you may be unable to stay present. Advocate for yourself (and your relationship). Request a time out and ask that you both take a break from the conversation and set a time to regroup to finish the conversation. When you take a break, make sure you allow yourself at least a 10 minute break but no more than 24 hours. It is important to schedule a time to reconvene before taking your break so that your partner does not feel abandoned and you do not procrastinate. After a time out has been called, give each individual their space. Take some alone time. Although it may be hard, try not to think about the conflict. Go for a walk, listen to some music, snuggle with your furry friend, whatever you need to do to clear your mind.
Once the time out is over, meet back up with your partner and finish the conversation. Your mind has had a chance to take a break from the conflict. This time apart can create some distance between you and the issue as you gain greater perspective. As your heart rate returns to a normal rhythm, you are probably more relaxed and able to hear what your partner is saying. The second round is bound to go smoother!
Check out this article by the Gottman Institute for additional information about taking a break:
Love Smarter by Learning When to Take a Break (gottman.com)