The term “stonewalling” comes from the construction industry, where it refers to building a wall of stone to keep out intruders. In relationships, “stonewalling” is the emotional equivalent of putting up a wall. Relationship researcher and therapist John Gottman, Ph.D., defines stonewalling in a discussion or argument: when “the listener withdraws from the interaction, shutting down and closing themselves off from the speaker because they are feeling overwhelmed or physiologically flooded. Metaphorically speaking, they build a wall between them and their partner.”
Dr. Gottman has found four destructive patterns of interaction which he refers to as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which can lead to relationship meltdown and divorce. Stonewalling is one of the four. Criticism, defensiveness, and contempt are the other three. To counteract stonewalling, consider the following strategies.
5 Tips for Dealing with Stonewalling
Practice self-compassion. Recognize that stonewalling can be extremely frustrating, even infuriating. It is understandable to feel angry, powerless, hurt, panicky, or even desperate to receive acknowledgement or a response. Honor your feelings and be gentle and kind with yourself for being provoked in this way. Know that you aren’t crazy or bad for having a negative emotional response. Focus on taking good care of yourself and practice self-love and self-care.
Choose healthy and adaptive ways to process your feelings. Instead of shouting at the stonewaller or pouring yourself a drink to self-medicate your frustration, release your feelings in ways that are healthy and adaptive. Go for a run or exercise to release stress. Practice mindfulness, such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga. Write in a journal or create a piece of artwork. Talk to a trusted friend, family member or therapist and ask for the support you need and deserve.
Practice healthy detachment. When somebody shuts down and refuses to communicate, it often provokes the other person to up the ante to try and get a response (by raising your voice, making aggressive or passive-aggressive statements or nonverbal communications such as slamming doors). Instead of poking the bear, unlock your horns or let go of your end of the tug of war. This will give you both time and space to settle and regroup before trying to open the lines of communication.
Write them a letter. Try communicating with them in a written format, but avoid text bombing or firing off angry emails. Sit down and get your thoughts out in an emotionally intelligent letter. Set an intention for the letter, such as re-establishing lines of communication or clarifying any misunderstandings or taking ownership and apologizing for your part. Speak in terms of yourself and how you are feeling by using “I statements” rather than “you statements,” which can trigger defensiveness. Be the bigger person and delete anything you have written that isn’t kind, necessary, or true. Invite them to respond with a letter or to let you know when they are ready to talk about it.
Practice empathy. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine how they may be feeling. Perhaps they are experiencing some shame, hurt, or anger that may be rooted in previous life experiences but was triggered in your relationship. Consider how your words or actions might have made them feel. Convey to them that you understand how they feel by making statements such as, “I realize you are upset and may be hurt and angry that I didn’t remember our plans for tonight.” Apologize and make amends when necessary, but only if you have actually done something wrong (otherwise you would be allowing yourself to be controlled by the stonewalling and would be taking on more responsibility than is yours to take). Realize that they may not have great communication or conflict resolution skills and that this has nothing to do with you–maybe it has to do with poor parenting or a lack of emotional support growing up.
Stonewalling is about refusing to communicate or cooperate. It can be passive-aggressive behavior or a way to protect oneself from emotional pain. When someone is stonewalling, they may not respond to questions, avoid eye contact, and refuse to discuss whatever you are talking about. This can be frustrating as you may feel ignored or shut out. If stonewalling becomes a pattern in your relationship, it can be damaging and may lead to resentment and mistrust. When you utilize these five tips, expect to connect better emotionally with your partner and have more meaningful conversations.
Seek SupportYou might also consider individual or couples therapy to get support and improve your communication and conflict resolution skills. You may also consider working a self-help mental fitness program to improve emotional intelligence skills such as presence, self-love, compassion, resilience, asking for support, and more.