Relationship Experts Say This Toxic Habit Is One the Biggest Predictors of Divorce

Relationship Experts Say This Toxic Habit Is One the Biggest Predictors of Divorce

DEAR DR. JENN,

Whenever my boyfriend and I get into a fight, he stops speaking to me. I am not talking about the I-need-to-calm-down-for-a-minute kind of thing people do. He full blown ignores me. I call his name, I ask him a question, I try to get his attention and he doesn’t even look up! It drives me crazy! WTF?! What is this and how do I make him stop? —Sick of the Silent Treatment

DEAR SILENT TREATMENT,

This sounds like a classic case of stonewalling. Stonewalling is when a person puts up a verbal and emotional wall and refuses to engage. There are many different ways to stonewall.

  • Ignoring the other person, even when being spoken to/Performing the silent treatment
  • Abandoning the usual “a-ha’s” and “hmms” of normal conversation
  • Monosyllabic mutterings
  • Changing the subject
  • Saying the same thing over and over again
  • Disappearing for long periods of time
  • Acting cold and impenetrable
  • Avoiding eye contact

All of this makes any sort of dialogue impossible and prevents couples from having any ability to communicate and work through problems. It is absolute poison to a relationship. As a matter of fact, relationship researcher John Gottman, who is best known for his ability to predict divorce with 94% accuracy, claims that stonewalling is the biggest predictor of divorce.

Research shows that 85% of stonewallers are men. The reason for this is that men have been found to be more physiologically reactive to emotional stimulation. In other words, they are more easily overwhelmed. Research also shows that during a conflict, a man’s pulse rate and blood pressure are far more likely to rise than a woman’s. This physiological disadvantage leaves men more prone to stonewalling. (This is not to say that there are not women who stonewall in a relationship. Plenty of women do and I’ve seen my share of stonewalling in same-sex relationships as well.)

Most men don't even realize that this protective mechanism is incredibly toxic to their relationships. But given how destructive this behavior is, it is important for your boyfriend to understand why he is doing this and what the effects are. He may have done this his whole life, or even grown-up in a family where people do it, and thinks it’s how you’re supposed to handle conflict in a relationship. He may not be educated about better ways to communicate. (First step: point him to this article or to a TedTalk on the topic.)

If he is on board to work on changing this behavior, here are a few things he can do:

  • Recognize when he is feeling overwhelmed during a discussion
  • Periodically check his heart rate during an emotional argument
  • Take 20 to 30 minutes to calm down if things are getting too heated in a discussion
  • Approach discussions about conflicts with sensitivity and gentleness
  • Make a pact to talk through conflict and not abandon each other, even if you need to take a time out during a heated discussion

Once you have had a conversation about what stonewalling is and why it is so harmful to the relationship, when it occurs you can gently remind your partner that you have both agreed not to stonewall in your relationship. It is also important to gently let your partner know that it’s not OK to do this (“Hey Ryan, I know this is a really overwhelming conversation but you made a commitment not to do this and it’s not OK.”) Once both people are aware of the behavior and how harmful it is, usually, they are highly motivated to extinguish the behavior so their relationship can get to a better place.

In Hump Day, award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sex and relationship questions — unjudged and unfiltered.

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