In his influential book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, psychologist John Gottman describes the intensifying marital tempest of Eric and Pamela, a couple he interviewed extensively. Year by year, their relationship grew worse, eventually deteriorating to the point that Eric would shut down at the first sign of conflict, muttering a few monosyllabic responses before escaping to the local tavern.
The pattern may sound familiar. Often, in the midst of a heated dispute between romantic partners, one of them simply withdraws from the interaction. For the person on the receiving end, it can feel like they’ve hit an insurmountable barrier.
What Is Stonewalling?
Stonewalling is a refusal to communicate or express emotions. The stonewaller contributes little (if anything) to the conversation, often changing the subject or outright ignoring their partner. They may even physically remove themselves from the situation.
If left unaddressed, stonewalling can leave both partners frustrated and hurt, potentially leading to divorce or separation. But once they recognize the problem, couples can learn healthy behaviors to counteract it.
What Is Stonewalling in a Relationship?
The term stonewalling, as it relates to relationships, was popularized by Gottman, who spent decades studying marital stability and predictors of divorce.
He saw the path to relationship failure as a gradual breakdown of communication, marked by a series of increasingly negative behaviors he termed the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” — first criticism, then defensiveness, contempt and, finally, stonewalling.
In that context, you can think of stonewalling as a harbinger of doom. Once it rides onto the scene, according to communication researchers Melissa McNelis and Chris Segrin, “the final step toward marital dissolution is evident.”
How Can Stonewalling Harm Relationships?
What makes it such a dark omen? As McNelis and Segrin write in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, “stonewalling communicates that neither the relationship nor the partner is worth time or effort to fight for the relationship.”
Assuming the relationship is worth fighting for, it’s not beyond rescue. But, as Gottman himself writes in Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: “Once the fourth horseman becomes a regular resident, it takes a good deal of hard work and soul searching to save the marriage.” Part of that work is identifying and understanding the origin of the behavior.
Where Does Stonewalling Come From?
Stonewalling is different (at least in its intent) from the silent treatment or the cold shoulder. Most likely, the stonewaller doesn’t mean to frustrate their partner or push their relationship to the brink. While the withdrawal itself is a conscious act, it’s likely because they hope to avoid making matters worse.
Ironically, Gottman explains, this approach has the opposite effect. “They do not seem to realize that stonewalling itself is a very powerful act,” he writes. “It conveys disapproval, icy distance, and smugness.”
Why Do People Stonewall?
The stonewaller may be simply in a state of “diffuse physiological arousal,” also known as emotional flooding. When this occurs, stress hormones are released, heart rate increases and a fight, flight or freeze response ensues. At this point, the stonewaller becomes overwhelmed to the point that they can no longer think or communicate rationally.
While men account for the vast majority of stonewallers — 85 percent, in Gottman’s research — it’s not specific to any gender. Regardless of who is the perpetrator, there are ways to prevent this behavior from becoming a habitual reaction to conflict.
Read More: What Keeps Us in Bad Relationships?
How to Respond to Stonewalling
With no prospect of effective communication in sight, the first step in combating stonewalling is to pause the interaction. If you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed (or if you see your partner becoming overwhelmed), ask to take a break and resume the discussion later.
In the meantime, do some self-soothing. That might mean taking a walk, reading a book, meditating — whatever brings you back to a calm, healthy emotional baseline. Then you can reconvene with your partner and try to work through the problem more constructively.
How to Stop Stonewalling
Whatever you do, don’t cave to the stonewalling impulse. Instead, keep your partner in the loop and acknowledge how you’re feeling. “It’s much better to hang in there,” Gottman writes, “perhaps to say that you feel like running away rather than actually acting on the emotion.”
Because stonewalling is usually a reaction to the preceding “horsemen” (criticism and contempt), the person being stonewalled can do their part by complaining rather than criticizing; that is, by directing their frustration at their partner’s behavior, not their character. Of course, the other partner must be willing to hear complaints without becoming defensive.
And, as with all relationship troubles, couples therapy may be a helpful resource in mastering these skills — and learning to break through the stone wall in the process.
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