There are four behaviors so deadly to a relationship, whether romantic, family and friends, or business, that they have been called ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ by relationship expert, John Gottman, Ph.D.. He names them:

  • Criticism
  • Contempt
  • Defensiveness
  • Stonewalling

This is the fourth in a series of articles devoted to understanding the impact of each of these behaviors. You will find the first three articles on Criticism, Contempt, and Defensiveness at their respective links.

This time we look at Stonewalling

Relationships are about you and something (like money) or someone else (family, friend, lover). When someone actively disengages from a conversation or the relationship, Gottman calls it stonewalling. It is very hard on a relationship. ‘Active’ and ‘disengagement’ are the key words.

“I need to talk to you.”


“Can we talk please?”


“If you don’t talk to me I’m going to burn that &*%$#@ paper!”

[ducking behind the newspaper – more silence]

[Sounds of a flame thrower come from the kitchen.]

Stonewalling shows up as silent treatments, a refusal to engage, and withdrawal—in general just ignoring the other. When stonewalling is present there are usually several of the other horsemen also galloping about and wreaking havoc. Stonewalling always escalates the conflict. It invites conflict, contempt, and defensiveness in an attempt to break the silence.

Remember that our biggest need in a relationship is to be heard and know that our feelings matter. The ‘other’ will get louder and more insistent in his or her demands for our attention until eventually just giving up and checking out emotionally. Call the coroner. I’ve heard many people say “We’ve been emotionally divorced for years.” Stonewalling is where it starts.

So what to do:

Realize your system (relationship) is in a state of alarm and needs immediate attention.

  1. If you are the one who is stonewalling explore the fears behind why you are not engaging. Is there a part of your identity that is at risk? Do you feel it just makes matters worse? Are you overwhelmed by emotion and anxiety and just can’t handle it?
  2. It may be helpful to explain why you are withholding. What do you need to from the other in order to be able to speak freely? Do you need to know that what you share will be held in confidence? Do you need to speak uninterrupted for a length of time? Do you need to set aside a time and/or place to have a difficult conversation?
  3. Is there a real threat of danger? Do you need a neutral place to meet, or a third party present? Do you need to have an agreement that there will be no screaming or bullying? What do you need to create a place where communication can happen?
  4. If your partner is stonewalling take a look at what you are doing that would cause the other to feel unsafe in expressing him/herself. Have you been judgmental? Parental? Are you being critical or contemptuous? Is s/he fearful that you will dismiss his/her ideas? Do you have to be right? Do you yell and bully?
  5. Focus on how YOU want to be and how you want things to be between you. Show up in the way you want regardless of what the other does. If you can show up as your highest and best self your friend/partner will have a better shot at doing that also.

Relationship coaching can be a powerful witness and change agent for your relationship. Don’t wait until your relationship is taking its last breath before you seek help! Call me for a free 30-minute conversation. We can get your relationship back on track in no time.

Call 303-746-7000 or  email