Stonewalling in Relationships


Stonewalling in Relationships: How to Re-Establish Openness and Connection

Stonewalling occurs when an individual shuts down communication due to feeling overwhelmed or blocked from communicating their needs or feelings.  The individual communicates in a nonverbal way that they are unavailable or may appear unresponsive.

It can be an unconscious reaction to feeling overwhelmed or unsafe, an attempt to gain back some sense of power or control, or simply a way to avoid painful conflict. Stonewalling is a destructive pattern of behavior that can lead to resentment and hostility in relationships. This can cause the other partner to feel shut down or ignored, leading to further stonewalling.

Stonewalling, or shutting down completely during a conflict, is one of the most destructive behaviors in relationships. It can lead to resentment, defensiveness, and feelings of hopelessness on the part of the person who is being stonewalled.  Stonewalling is often a sign that one or both partners feel overwhelmed by the conflict.

They may feel that they are not being heard, that their concerns are not important, or that they are not able to resolve the conflict.  Stonewalling can also be a sign of emotional withdrawal. One or both partners may be feeling overwhelmed by their emotions and need time to themselves in order to process them.

Research by the Gottman Institute found that when stonewalling is present, both parties may experience reduced levels of empathy, decreased ability to process information (such as reduced hearing) and lowered capacity for problem solving. If left unaddressed, stonewalling is likely to cause severe marital or relationship distress, conflict, and disruption.

If you find yourself stonewalling your partner, there are steps you can take to reestablish openness and connection. Advisors like John Gottman suggest working on rebuilding trust and intimacy in your relationship. This often means being willing to take risks and be vulnerable with your partner.  The best way to prevent stonewalling is to create an environment of openness and safety in your relationship.

Here are some ways to prevent stonewalling in your relationship and rebuild a sense of safety and trust:

  1. Acknowledge that you may not be a part of the problem.

If and when you notice your partner start to disengage, consider that they may be feeling overwhelmed by something that may be difficult to discuss.  Provide a compassionate presence by assuring them that you can be available to talk when they are ready rather than pressuring or shaming them for not opening up at a certain time.

  1. Consider how you respond to perceived criticism, hostility or aggressiveness.

Perhaps stonewalling is an immediate defensive response to perceiving another person’s statements as highly critical or aggressive due to circumstances, tone and nonverbal and verbal cues you may be attentive to.  Practice gaining the facts from the situation and acknowledging that individuals may have different interpretations or perceptions about the situation at hand- and that is okay!  You may even practice stating to your partner that it can be difficult to hear statements such as XYZ as it can come off critical and allow them to explain their side without judgment.

  1. Check your attitude and tone of voice.

It is important to recognize and relate to the idea that when we hear someone use a harsh, condescending, or judgmental tone we may perceive that tone as aggressive.  If you are perceiving your partner as being aggressive and/or hostile, consider practicing being more gentle and compassionate.

  1. Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness can be practiced in a variety of ways: by engaging in mindful communication with your partner, by practicing mindfulness when you notice yourself getting upset or angry, by listening more deeply to others and allowing them to express themselves, to name a few.

  1. Self-Soothing Skills

When we are mindful of our emotions, we are able to become aware of changes in our affect and mood.  When you begin to notice changes in your body, thoughts and emotional state, this is a cue to dis-engage in a healthy way.  While stonewalling allows us to disengage in the moment, it can be harmful in its ways of shutting someone out or incite feelings of hostility in the person on the receiving end. 

It is important to take a break from a difficult conversation and take ownership of your feelings.  It is ok to notice and verbalize that you are feeling stressed, overwhelmed, confused, numb, etc and that you need to take a break to practice self-soothing skills.  These skills focus on sensory experiences- such as listening to music, taking a walk, lighting a candle, creating art, etc.

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