In an intimate relationship, there are common dynamics of interactions. One of them I deal with in a couple of clients is the stonewalling versus criticising dynamic. This dynamic is one that can become entrenched in a couple’s engagement with each other and lead to severe dissatisfaction with the relationship.
What relationship research shows
Relationship expert Dr John Gottman, who researched couples for the past 40 years, has coined the term of the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Relationships’, which lead to marital disaster. Two of the four steps are criticism and stonewalling. According to his research, 85% of men are stonewallers where the majority of women are critics. Stonewalling means that the person disengages from the conversation, pretending to still be part of it by being physically present, but giving minimal verbal feedback. Energetically the person has already left the interaction.
The stonewalling-critic dynamic
Often when there is a critic (usually but not exclusively women) and a skilled stonewaller the dynamic quickly starts to run and leads into an unhealthy cycle where one role feeds the other.
The critic starts sending out messages, which might not even be criticism at the beginning. The stonewaller starts to engage as he is usually very sensitive to being criticised and hears any comment as critical. To avoid any further comments or interactions, he intensifies the ‘dis-engagement. This infuriates the critic as all she wants is for him to at least engage and say something. At this moment, the critic might up the ante and actually say something critical, just to get a reaction. At this point, the stonewaller will shut down the interactions until the situation has cooled down again.
Influences of personalities
Depending on the personalities involved in this dynamic and how long it takes one or the other to cool down and whether and when they are ready to lead into repair mechanism this dynamic can either very quickly lead into a spiral downward to marital disaster or just be a repeated pattern of a relationship.
Especially when stress levels are up, it is more likely for this dynamic to endanger the relationship as none of the two might have much energy left to lend a hand and start to climb back up to martial harmony.
The way out of the dynamic
Depending on the level of self-awareness and reflection, a couple will easily be able to work together towards harmony. Often what it needs is the ability to allow vulnerability and openness to let each other in what is going on for each side of the dynamic. This especially requires the critic to let go or tone down criticism and for the stonewaller to be ready to engage and be open.
If you as a coupe encounter challenges when trying to repair, make sure to ask a trained and unbiased professional for help.