Conflict is unavoidable, whether it’s between you and your kids, co-workers, or your significant other. The higher the stakes in the relationship, the more it is likely to hurt. People respond in different ways.
Stonewalling in marriage is often a knee-jerk response that individuals use to protect themselves when the emotional tide becomes too overwhelming. It’s not unlike a fight or flight response. It is an emotional escape.
What Is Stonewalling and How Does It Affect A Healthy Relationship?
The term is apt because it precisely describes one person’s actions toward another. When stonewalling, an individual typically closes themselves off from someone emotionally and sometimes even physically. Telltale signs include:
- Silent treatment
- Ignoring someone
- Retreating to a safe place, such as a man cave
- Preoccupation with other activities
It’s the proverbial standstill when a person feels they have no recourse to a conflict that appears to have no solution. However, it is a misstep in emotional intelligence because the one doing the stonewalling is not in control of their feelings and can funnel them constructively.
Stonewalling In Marriages: Gottman’s Fourth Horseman
Renowned American psychologist Dr. John Gottman and his wife, Julie Gottman have developed the ‘Four Horsemen’ theory based on decades of studying married couples and their relationships. According to them, these ‘Four Horsemen’ known as Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling are the four patterns that can greatly tear relationships apart.
Stonewalling in marriages, although seemingly harmless, can be emotionally stressful for couples especially if it’s done repeatedly. Stonewalling stops communication to push through at a time when it is most needed. However, Gottman also suggested some antidotes that can help solve the problem if stonewalling is the big issue a couple should solve.
The origin of the term was taken from the Book of Revelations, which portrays the four horsemen that signaled the end of days. This was used as a metaphor by Gottman to represent the four patterns that signal the end of relationships. The aftermath can be devastating for couples, especially if the issue drags on with no resolution. Stonewalling, as Gottman’s fourth horseman is one of the most destructive patterns in marriages that emotionally affects the partner of a stonewaller more.
However, stonewalling can also have physical effects. Some studies found out that this defensive mechanism can increase the risk of back pain and muscle stiffness in individuals doing the stonewalling. That makes sense, given the fact that the persons doing it are trying to contain their emotions. Of course, they’re seething, but they don’t want to show it.
The health effects are also evident in the recipient of stonewalling. The resulting anger can increase their risk of cardiovascular conditions, such as high blood pressure. Therefore, the consequences of stonewalling can be far-reaching and long-term for both people involved in the conflict.
How Stonewalling Starts
Stonewalling in marriages doesn’t occur spontaneously. Instead, it develops gradually during a conflict.
The fight escalates, often including personal jabs below the belt. The argument typically creates an ever-widening gulf between the two viewpoints. The final straw occurs when one person envisions themselves facing a brick wall with nowhere to turn. The other may continue arguing even if the other has gone silent.
The conflict reaches an impasse with no foreseeable conclusion on both sides.
The stonewaller will retreat emotionally in response, with the wall coming up around them. Individuals who use this response may be doing it intentionally, or unintentionally. These are the most common reasons why:
- To avoid escalating an argument.
- To stop a partner from discussing an uncomfortable topic.
- To manipulate a partner to apologize and come around to their point of view.
- To punish their partner for an argument that crossed the line.
Whether intentional or unintentional, it’s essential to understand that stonewalling is often instinctive. People may naturally do it because this type of response is hard-wired into humans. We typically avoid conflict because it has costs and can affect our survival. It’s evident in animals, too. That’s one reason why many species will mark their territories with scent or vocalizations to avoid costly physical fights.
After all, it takes less energy and has fewer potential risks if you prevent a conflict or stand up to the challenge.
4 Things To Do When Your Partner Is Stonewalling You
It’s not unusual to get emotional when dealing with stonewalling. It can be infuriating, especially if the avoidance and silence are in-your-face gestures. Unfortunately, a confrontation is likely to escalate the problem and push a resolution further from the table. It can likely add more fodder to the fury that the stonewaller is feeling and may prolong the conflict.
1. Avoid stoking the fire
This can be tough but the best thing to do at the moment is to avoid stoking the fire no matter how angry it’s making you feel. Your stonewalling partner may look like he or she is ignoring you but most of the time, it’s their desperate response. Avoid pleading or pushing them to talk or respond. They might have their own reasons why they think stonewalling is the best to do at the moment. Some individuals are also more accommodating when you tell them how you feel instead of urging them to talk about an uncomfortable issue.
2. Watch your language
If communication is still possible, make sure that you are being careful with the words you say. Start with “I” statements instead of “You” ones. For example, instead of saying, “You make me feel ________.” A better approach is to say, “I feel _______when you ________.” This way, you’re letting your partner know that their actions, words, or the lack thereof, are affecting you. Most people use stonewalling out of fear that their reaction or response can only make matters worse. Stonewalling can also be the result of frustration when one feels an issue can’t be resolved.
3. Give a clear signal
You can start compartmentalizing discussions in a healthy way. If there is a specific issue, try to come up with an understanding to discuss it once both of you are ready. Invent a signal you both can send each other whenever one of you feels uncomfortable discussing an issue. It can be a word, a phrase, a note, or a physical gesture. If it helps, write the subject on a piece of paper and set it aside until both of you are ready to talk about it again. This gesture assures the stonewaller that you are willing to talk about it once he or she is settled. The stonewaller should also be appreciative of this and should be able to talk calmly about the matter once he or she is ready.
4. Take a break
Both partners should take a break and try to do something to distract themselves when an argument starts heating up. This might be one of the things your stonewalling partner needs at that moment. This gives each of you the time to ease your tensions and respect each other’s peace. It’s crucial to think of ways to distract yourself fully before discussing the matter again with your partner. Taking a breather from a heated argument that got your partner into ‘stonewalling mode’ allows you to get things into perspective. Once you’re done and ready, try opening the discussion calmly.
How To Stop Someone From Stonewalling?
For someone whose initial response during an argument is stonewalling, it can be a challenge to make him or her stop doing it right away. However, It’s imperative for couples to recognize the signs of stonewalling to control it before it does irreparable damage. If you’ve experienced this outcome, you likely know when things have taken a turn. You’re emotionally attached. The greatest thing you can do for each other is to give your partner a license to call a time out if they need it. It works for unruly kids or pets. It can do the same for you two.
You should also have an understanding that the past is the past. Once a conflict is resolved, it no longer is fodder for new ones. Doing so can re-open wounds and unleash the other horsemen of contempt and criticism. The former is one of the most destructive of these communication styles. It can also undermine any progress you’ve made on previous resolutions.
We also suggest staying in the moment. Avoid going down rabbit holes that can bring unfounded elements to the present conflict. We recommend that you put volatile issues on the back burner if either of you is tired or hungry. That puts you at an emotional disadvantage and more likely to blow a fuse. We can also say the same thing about alcohol. Remember that it can release inhibitions and angry words.
Remember, You’re In This Together
Even if you’re the stonewaller or your partner is, remember that the onus isn’t just on one person. It takes two people in a marriage. Each individual has their role in resolving the conflict. The essential thing is to learn to recognize how you’re reacting and how destructive it is. That means being aware of how you’re responding and knowing when you’re reaching your emotional endpoint. Awareness is the key to prevention.
Having strong feelings about an issue isn’t wrong. After all, we’re all human and there’s no sin in experiencing emotions. The problems arise if you deal with them inappropriately and treat your partner with less than the respect that they deserve. You two are in a relationship for a reason. Don’t lose sight of it even if the feelings run high.
The best way to deal with stonewalling is to remember that it’s a form of defensive mechanism. We all have limited resources to devote to emotions. When we reach our limit, it’s natural to pull back from the conflict. Unfortunately, this tactic has costs. It makes it critical for couples to recognize the signs and ways to diffuse the situation before it gets out of control. In marriage, it’s easy to recognize these signs as early as possible so you can start doing something about it.
It may seem odd to think that there is a right way to fight. However, it’s a vital skill that will help you have healthier relationships with your significant other and anyone else that you deal with, whether it’s an acquaintance, co-worker, or family member. Let that be your motivation to take the high road.
If you’re struggling with issues involving your marriage, remember that there are people who can also help you get through it. May it be a relationship problem or a ‘you’ problem, it’s important to be aware of these things so you’d know how to handle them. Our relationship experts are more than happy to assist you.