silent treatment

Silent Treatment and Its Relatives

Hello all! Today we are going to talk about silent treatment and its relatives, which is an emotional disconnect called stonewalling.  If you are like me and didn’t know what stonewalling was before you read about the 4 Horsemen, I'll explain.

It is essentially something like the silent treatment or that is the extreme version of it. Stonewalling is the emotional disconnect during a conversation or conflict. That is the best way to pare it down, emotional disconnect. It is another of the 4 Horsemen, from the Gottman’s research.

It may not be obvious as the silent treatment, but it could be coming home and slamming some doors, and someone is saying “are you ok?” and your response is “I’m fine.” That would also be known as passive aggressive. You guys maybe familiar with that, zero judgement from me. It could also be turning over in bed away from your partner, claiming to be extremely tired or have a headache when you don’t.

So emotionally disconnecting from our partners instead of turning toward them is another emotionally damaging thing that we do when there is conflict. It often happens when we feel flooded. 

The Love Lab and Physiological Responses

So, in Gottman's research, we talked about the love lab that they did research in the 80’s. The couples would come in for a weekend and they would be studied from their physiological readings and responses. One of the readings was their heart rate. And if you see a Gottman certified therapist, they may even have a small heart rate monitor that you put on your finger while you are in session together talking about a tough topic. Gosh, nowadays we have all sorts of things that are convenient to read our heart rates.

One of the things with flooding is that our heart rate increases, and we believe through research it is over 100 beats per minute. I know for me, stonewalling, neither of us do this a whole lot in our marriage, especially now. But in the beginning, I would be the one more prone to do this. For me, I wasn’t aware of my heart rate or my internal body temperature would rise. I would become flushed in the face and or I blush a lot. Some people think that blushing is only associated with being embarrassed, but for me it is also associated with anger or intense emotion other than joy. My internal temperature is something I can feel rising, when I begin to feel flooded.

As you work on some of these things, pay attention to your own physiological responses to conflict. What are you noticing? When we get flooded emotionally, the next thing that naturally happens is that we shut down. It is the sense of running a marathon, or some other long-distance run, and you hit a wall, it is like you can’t even imagine walking another mile. That is also what it is like for us emotionally when we get flooded in a conversation or conflict.

Flooding is not the only thing that precedes stonewalling. It may also be this kind of pent up resentment or bitterness that we haven’t fully explored or shared with our partners. So, stonewalling may be a response that happens after a lot of buildup of not talking about something. 

“I am done with this conversation.”

In my own relationship, I never really did the silent treatment, that I can remember. I may have to get my husband to fact check me on that. But early on in our relationship it would just be more like saying, “I am done with this conversation, we can’t keep talking about this, I am not going to keep talking about this.” Walking into another room, I might have gone somewhere by myself when normally my husband would have come with me, things like that. 

Plausible Deniability

With my clients, I see a lot of stonewalling. And I do think that, Men are more prone to stonewalling in the sense of emotional disconnect. I think that in my own experience and working with clients that women are better at full blown silent treatments. We all have our own versions of this.

With a lot of the women that I have worked with over the years, I have heard a lot of silent treatment. We haven’t talked for 3-4 days, and men do this as well. I hesitate to do generalizations just because sometimes this isn’t a good thing. I am just trying to lean into areas of growth of a larger part of my listeners. Please note that this does not always apply to everybody. There are always exceptions.

But with silent treatments with my clients, I have also heard moms who did this, do this or used to do this, when my clients were growing up. So, while this podcast is about romantic relationships, please keep this in mind for your other relationships as well. With your family, kids, coworkers.

I hear a lot more of plausible deniability when it comes to stonewalling. Plausible deniability is easy for someone to say, “Oh I am so sorry that I just forgot to do that, or I just got caught up with my day.” There is this convenient excuse that sounds good.

It could also be I have heard that my client is intentionally not answering their phone calls, or not responding for a couple hours to a text back because they are passively trying to punish someone who upset them. That is a version of stonewalling. If you are someone who just regularly doesn’t respond to text messages, that behavior isn’t necessarily stonewalling, it is the intention behind it.

I also have worked with clients who have not had physical intimacy with their partners for many months and sometimes years. This isn’t a trauma related thing; trauma would be whole separate category. I am talking about this passive way of disconnecting or punishing your partner. These are all different ways of stonewalling. 

Navigating Away from Stonewalling

So, let's talk about what you can do about it. If you are relating to any of this stuff, we have all been there, we are just using this as learning opportunities for us. We all must start somewhere to keep improving our relationships.

The first thing I talked about is knowing your physiological sensations, know your body and connecting what physiological sensations go with what emotions. Once you have more of an awareness of this, let your partner know when you are feeling flooded. Do your best to do this in a connecting kind of way, explain what flooded is to your partner in case they don’t know what it is, use your own words. “Hey, I am feeling really flooded (or i am starting to feel upset) right now, and I can feel heart racing, or my thoughts are racing. I can feel myself getting hot", let your partner know how you are feeling. Suggest maybe taking a break.

Now, for the physiological stuff, you will need to take a break of at least 20 minutes. That is about the time to have our heart rate return to normal. I would also recommend that the break not be more than 24 hours, if you can help it. If it is more than 24 hours, make sure that it is mutually acceptable to your partner and the kicker to it is, return to the conversation that is causing the distress. Hopefully, you can return to the conversation and have a more productive conversation about the conflict.

Remember that having a healthy and normal relationship isn’t about having no conflict, it is about how we navigate the conflict that is important. So, we are going to be aware of our physiological signs of distress and emotional disconnect. We are going to let our partners know that this is going on. You are going to request that at least a 20-minute break. You are going to come back at an agreed upon time and resume the conversation in a different and healthy way.

That way you don’t get flooded and so you can hang in there and feel connected to your partner. What do you need when you feel flooded? Can you relate to feeling flooded? Has that ever come up for you? Your partner. Can you ask for or give a break? Are you able to resume the conflict? 

Turning toward your partner instead of away can be soothing to your partner and your outcome will likely be much better.

I want to give you guys some encouragement to work on this solution if you feel flooded and if you are prone to stonewalling. It will make things better in the long run. 

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