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Professional Columns -
Relationships by Dr. Bill Austin


Has this ever happened to you? You get into an argument with your partner who then shuts down. He decides not talk, and if you say anything his response is in monosyllabic muttering as he leaves the room.  He has built a wall around himself and has become a stone face with no expression. We can feel an icy distance and a disconnection.

Dr. Gottman calls this defense mechanism "stonewalling." It is one of Gottman's Four Horsemen that is so poisonous to the health of any relationship.

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Stonewalling shuts down a confrontation by saying, "I don't want to talk about it." After a few failed attempts to reopen the conversation, we discover that our partner not only means that we will not discuss this hot topic today but we will never discuss it.

Another frustrating experience is after our partner has  unloaded on us and we try to address the issue, our partner cuts us off by saying, "See, I can't share my feelings with you. I'll just keep my feelings to myself."

The problem with these approaches is that our relationship begins building a list of "hot topics" that we are not allowed to talk about. We have created a tiger in our relationship. Even though we don't talk about it, we all know that the tiger is there. We feel it. We tip toe around it and even stumble over it.

Anything that is not looked at becomes
larger and more powerful.

As we add more topics to the "I don't want to talk about it" list, the tiger gets larger and the result is that we stop talking altogether because we are afraid that might touch on one of those forbidden topics. Consequently, nothing gets resolved.

Since we choose not to be vulnerable or honest with each other, we will experience a lack of trust and intimacy. Eventually, some couples will get a divorce because the unresolved issues and the feelings around them have created a feeling of "not being in love."

Not being allowed to share our viewpoint or express our feelings about the issue leaves us with anger and frustration. The obvious question that is not addressed but should be is: "If we are not allowed to talk about the problem, how can we ever resolve it, heal and move on?"

Even though we are not talking about it, we are still dealing with it. It is like having a tiger in the shadows that is ready to pounce out and attack us. Anything that is not looked at becomes larger and more powerful. Problems that are brought out of hiding and exposed to the light of examination are more manageable, less frightening and less powerful.

Once we know what the problem looks like, it no longer controls us and we can deal with it. It is healthier for our relationship when we face our issues instead of stonewalling.

Dr. Austin has decades of experience dealing with relationships. He charges clients on a sliding scale according to their ability to pay. His first book, Creating Our Safe Place: Articles on Healthy Relationships, was published in 2004. His second book, Keeping It Safe, was published in 2009 and can be purchased through,, and at the Parrish Book Store in Virginia Beach.  He is also a sought-after speaker at meetings and seminars.

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