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Shutting down or stonewalling is a common complaint from couples in my therapy practice.

According to Ellie Lisitsa, “stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction, shuts down and simply stops responding to their partner.”

We all know how frustrating this can be. We know what it feels like to try to communicate with someone who is turning away.

Couples typically assume that their partners are tuning them out as a way to punish them or hurt them.

Sure, this is a possibility in some cases but more times than not it’s quite the opposite.

Shutting down can be your partners way to protect the relationship.

Let’s talk about conflict

During conflict, many people experience what John Gottman calls emotional flooding. In a moment of high conflict, if you had a heart monitor on, the chances are very likely that you would see your heart rate increase amidst other physiological changes. This state is also known as fight or flight. When your nervous system is in overdrive, you cannot have a productive conversation.

Shutting down can be a sign that your partner is emotionally overwhelmed and needs a break.

Shutting down is their way of diffusing the situation.

Kari Rusnak LPC, defines flooding as our body’s alarm system for perceived threats. This can be helpful when we are in real physical danger, such as being chased by an animal.

When we are in conflict with our loved ones, flooding can make the situation much worse.

Consider Intent

What is your partner’s intent? Is their intent to hurt you? Is their intent to get away from the conversation?

These are two very different things.

Stonewalling is often a response to feeling physiological flooded.


One antidote to shutting down or stonewalling is to ask for a break.

Say to you partner “I need to take a break from the conversation. I am feeling frustrated. Let’s talk about this later”.

While taking a break, engage in an activity that is physiologically calming. What is soothing to you? Take a walk, engage in a project, or call a friend.

Research shows that it usually takes about 30 minutes to move out of a flooded state.

It is important that you remember to revisit the conversation later when you are in a different emotional state.

Code Words

There are times when a couple is too flooded to explain that they need a break. A good antidote for this is a code word. Designate a code word that you will use when things are escalating. Choose a code word with your partner so that you both know what it is. The code word can be something funny, or something special. The importance of the code word is that it means BREAK. It means, we are moving to a place of damage, and we need a conversation break to protect our relationship

Read below for part of John Gottman’s longitudinal research studies:

“We interrupted arguing couples after fifteen minutes and told them we needed to adjust the equipment. We asked them not to talk about their issue, but just to read magazines for half an hour. When they started talking about their issue again, their heart rates were significantly lower and their interaction more positive and productive”

When we understand that our partners may be responding from a place of emotional overwhelm, it can truly change the game. The antidote to emotional overwhelm is self-soothing.

Respect the break

Just like it is important for Partner A to ask for the break. It is equally important that partner B respects the break. When your partner asks for a break, it may trigger feelings of frustration or abandonment for you. When this happens, it is important for you to engage in a self-soothing activity that brings you back to baseline. If it is difficult for you to respect your partner’s break, remind yourself that the conversation break is an act of protection for your relationship.

Be mindful of how you use the break. You can either fuel the fire that you are feeling, or you can specifically work to engage in an activity that brings your nervous system back to baseline.

A crucial relationship skill

Being able to take a break and respect the break is crucial to the health of your relationships. This is true for all of your relationships. This skill transfers to friendships, parenting and sibling relationships. When we know how to pause and take care of our own feelings, it aids all of our relationships. So next time you feel super frustrated, and you are about to let out a bunch of defensive words, take a break.

Modern Therapy and Wellness, LLC is a boutique therapy practice in Louisiana. We provide in person and virtual therapy. Our therapists can work with you on many things, such as grief, stress management, anxiety, boundaries and managing emotions. We do have relationship specialists who can help you with your relationship goals. We use the Gottman method with our couples. We provide individual and couples therapy. Contact us to make an appointment or to schedule a phone consultation. Relationships can be complex. Let us help you navigate them.

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