Known as one of the Four Horsemen that kills relationships, John Gottman describes stonewalling as someone withdrawing from an interaction, shutting down, and ceasing to respond to their partner. “Rather than confronting the issues with their partner, people who stonewall can make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviors.”
Stonewalling, then, is just what it sounds like: putting up the proverbial wall between you and your partner. We might call it giving the cold shoulder, or storming out during a fight, or expressing that it feels like we’re talking to a wall.
Stonewalling: What’s Happening Beneath the Surface?
When one partner stops communicating during a difficult discussion, it can be infuriating. The person being stonewalled might feel alienated, isolated, unworthy, and maybe even prompt them to try and force their partner to communicate through yelling and threats.
On the surface, the person doing the stonewalling can come across as cold, uncaring, and disconnected. But what isn’t obvious is that stonewalling is typically a coping mechanism to avoid conflict, and can arise as a response to physiological changes in a person’s body in the face of tension.
While a tendency to shut down can arise as a natural response to discord, the act of doing can become a habit that wreaks havoc on a relationship. If you and your partner come up against stonewalling in your disagreements, here are some tips to navigate:
- Work together to create a space for discussion that doesn’t activate the body’s physiological alarm systems (ie: keeping volume low, being mindful of personal space, use gentle language, etc.)
- Come up with a code word or a non-threatening way to express when someone needs a break from the conversation. Do your best to calmly communicate that you are getting overwhelmed and would like to decompress and come back to it later.
- When a partner needs a break, set a time to come back and attempt to continue the conversation. Maybe it’s 20 minutes, or after a trip to the gym, a nap, or however long it will take you to do some self-care.
- Instead of taking a break from the conversation and ruminating on the faults of your partner, dedicate the space to self-care. Do what you need to do to recharge yourself enough to finish the difficult discussion.
- Understand that stonewalling is incredibly damaging to the sense of trust, connection, and closeness in a relationship. Get help from a professional if you and your partner are having trouble mitigating the effects of shutdown in your relationship.
Stonewalling, if left unchecked, can be a silent killer of a relationship. The good news is, we can warm up that could shoulder through improved communication, knowing when to take a break, and learning how to recharge ourselves so we can tackle the difficult conversations. Give it a try – you and your partner are worth it.