Why detaching from conflict can kill a relationship

Many people believe that fighting is bad in a relationship and of course that’s true if the arguing is toxic and non productive. However, for a couple therapist the worst indicator for the relationship is  when one of the partners seems to have given up.

This partner may have got to the stage where everything seems to hopeless that they detach from the relationship – they no longer even care enough to get angry.

This roughly equates to what couple therapist and researcher John Gottman describes as stonewalling and he argues it’s the most damaging pattern in a relationship.

It is when one partner withdraws from interaction with the other, as he or she is feeling overwhelmed or hopeless. When there is a problem in the relationship the woman will sometimes insist on long talks late into the night to try and resolve it but this can leave the man feeling drained. If he withdraws emotionally in this situation, his partner can then feel she is not being valued and she in turn begins to withdraw.

I’ve seen this pattern often in couple therapy, especially if there has been a betrayal by the man and his partner wants to go over the details again and again. She has a need to try and understand as much as possible about what happened but he feels interrogated and is afraid of not remembering something important and getting into worse trouble.

According to Gottman’s research men are much more likely to stonewall than women. They may try to avoid arguments, perhaps because they don’t believe the arguing is helping, but the net result can be that the woman begins to detach and this can be a major indicator that the relationship is dying.

When one partner is angry about something in the relationship it shows that that person at least cares, even if it is uncomfortable for both partners. When one partner emotionally checks out it is far more damaging because it suggests that they have given up believing that things can change.

Part of the answer to this conundrum is not to remove conflict from the relationship – as if that were possible – but to learn how to handle conflict differently.

Couple therapy can help the partners learn ways of expressing their thoughts and feelings in a way that the other person can truly understand. It can help the couple express underlying feelings, such as vulnerability or grief, rather than sticking to anger and judgment. Allowing in these unacknowledged emotions can shift the dynamic. 

Couples can also be helped to understand whether there is anything in the current situation that echoes what may have happened in their childhood. Frequently, we unconsciously bring unresolved issues from the past to our adult relationships and untangling this knot can help lessen the emotional temperature.

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