Stonewalling is a way to avoid conflict. It’s an avoidance strategy that creates an emotional wall between you and your partner.
This is part four of a four-part series — Four communication styles that will cripple your marriage.
John Gottman predicts in his research that stonewalling is a communication style that predicts divorce, if left unaddressed. He calls the four styles — The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The four horsemen are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.
Stonewalling can be defined as tuning out. It’s actively disengaging to avoid a fight.
No eye contact.
No head nods.
No “yeah,” “uh-huh,” or any type of vocal feedback.
Leaving the room.
Changing the subject.
Being unresponsive is your partner’s way of saying, “I’m not doing this right now.”
Stonewalling is intentional, but it’s intent is not always to be disrespectful. Often, it’s a response to feeling overwhelmed at that moment.
The goal of withdrawing — avoid conflict — is hardly ever realized, because the consequence of stonewalling perpetuates it.
Whether you’re protecting yourself from feeling difficult feelings, or unable to cope with the intensity of the moment, stonewalling conveys disapproval, and authors disconnection.
The Negative Impact of Stonewalling
It’s no different than talking to an actual wall. Stonewalling shuts down one of the key components of any relationship — communication. More importantly, it’s not only the absence of communication that’s harmful to the relationship.
It’s the emotional disengagement that lingers.
You push your partner away removing yourself emotionally. Equally, it escalates the conflict you’re trying to avoid.
Stonewalling encourages your partner to try and get something out of you. It prompts their own frantic pursuit, or discouraging withdrawal.
It’s common for the stonewaller to believe his or her only recourse is to withdraw from feeling as if, “whatever I say won’t matter anyway.”
Understandably, he or she retreats. Rather than show hurt, frustration or fear, he or she calculates that showing nothing will help more than hurt.
Some partners respond to the discomfort of disconnection by verbalizing their anger and hurt, stonewallers purposely suppress it.
He or she believes saying nothing will not make it worse.
The problem is — it does make it worse.
It alienates the other partner. It’s disconnecting. It’s not so much about the increase in conflict as it is about the decrease in affection, attractiveness to each other, and emotional responsiveness.
While stonewallers suffer in silence, his or her partner feels emotionally abandoned, unimportant, unloved.
When facing the wall of a withdrawn partner — men typically feel rejected and inadequate; women typically feel abandoned and disconnected.
However you assign the labels, the emotional equilibrium of the relationship is thrown off balance, leading to other factors that weakens the relationship.
The ability to empathize with your partner, seek understanding of his or her perspective, process information, and come up with reasonable solutions are all jeopardized.
Ok. I get it. Stonewalling isn’t helpful. How do I avoid it?
We all handle emotional distress differently. The stonewaller physically, or emotionally, isolates him or herself.
It starts with the intentional effort of developing an awareness of recognizing when you want to shut down. That is your indication that you need a break.
The break is an opportunity for you to gather yourself — calm down. Do something that speaks to you.
Listen to music.
Go for a walk or bike ride.
Watch your favorite movie.
Read a book.
The idea behind the break is to recalibrate your emotions. You need to be able to hear what your partner needs to say. As well as, say what you need to say.
What’s important is to not just walk away, though. Let your partner know you’re feeling overwhelmed, and need a break.
Discuss a time to come back together, and talk again.
Stonewalling is an unhealthy response to conflict. In the short-term, it may feel like a viable option. But in the long-term, it can have devastating effects. Particularly, disrupting the emotional connection necessary for your relationship to grow.