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Do you ever get the silent treatment in your marriage or romantic relationship?
You know the other person is angry. You can see the anger or even outright hostility. But he or she simply won’t tell you what’s wrong, or even how to solve this issue.
If this sounds familiar, then you’ve experienced a negative communication style that’s commonly known as “stonewalling.”
While stonewalling is often a form of emotional abuse, it usually happens when one partner doesn’t know how to express their anger or disappointment in a healthy manner.
That said, stonewalling can have a long-term negative impact on your relationship.
In this article, we’ll define stonewalling, talk about how it negatively impacts relationships, and then provide 11 ways to respond to stonewalling in your relationships.
First, let’s start with a simple definition.
Stonewalling happens when one person in a relationship absolutely refuses to consider his or her partner’s perspective. When confronted, this person withdraws from interaction and shuts down, becoming completely unresponsive. It’s literally like talking to a wall.
Dr. John Gottman, a psychological researcher and marital expert, was the first to use stonewalling in the context of relationship conflicts. He identifies it as one of the four major predictors of divorce in a married couple (the other three being contempt, criticism, and defensiveness).
Perhaps the most vivid description of stonewalling is from psychologist Jeff Pipe:
“(I)t is the emotional equivalent to cutting off someone’s oxygen.”
According to Dr. Gottman, men are more likely to use stonewalling in a relationship compared to women. In fact, 85% of people who stonewall are men.
This is understandable, considering brain science has shown us that women's brains are more developed in the areas related to feelings, communication, and interpersonal relating skills, while men's brains are more developed in problem-solving and logical processes.
When someone is stonewalling, they are typically trying to avoid conflict or calm themselves down in the midst of a stressful situation. They may feel like they're unable to cope with their feelings and therefore shut down or withdraw to protect themselves from experiencing discomfort or incompetence.
However, stonewalling is not defined by an absence of verbal communication. Rather, it is defined by emotional disengagement. Because one partner has completely removed himself emotionally from the situation, their body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions stay featureless.
There are different reasons why some partners or spouses use stonewalling in relationships. Regardless of the cause, stonewalling drives the other partner away.
If you’re often dismissed or ignored in your relationship, the emotional impact can be crippling. You may start to devalue your self-worth. And feel powerless, with no control over the situation.
Though difficult to process, this is a natural response to stonewalling. And while the emotional burden will differ from person to person, some of the more common effects are:
Stepping back from a heated argument is part and parcel of a healthy relationship. We all need some time to cool off and gather our thoughts.
But when consistently used as an abusive tactic by toxic partners, the silent treatment can be deafening. The stonewaller holds power to ignore their partner’s needs while the victim is left completely in the dark.
So now that you understand the emotional impacts of stonewalling, here are 11 ways to deal with stonewalling in your relationship.
While self-blame is an easy trap to fall into, it’s essential to recognize that you are not the problem. And that responsibility for the problems lies firmly with the stonewaller.
If you are the only one willing to work on an unhealthy relationship, you must realize that self-care is the most important thing. You have to know when it is time to leave the situation and detach from your partner, or else you will end up feeding into their games. Trying to get your partner to open up or behave in a certain manner can be dangerous.
Stonewallers protect themselves through righteous indignation, or act as if they are innocent victims to try to ward off a perceived strike.
Instead of trying to win the attention and approval of your stonewalling partner, use the distance they have created to reevaluate your relationship. Is this what you really want? Are your needs being met? Be honest with yourself – is it really worth it in the long run?
Though your partner likely made you feel that the problems in your relationship are your fault, it’s important to:
When you are showing empathy, you are figuratively putting yourself in the other person's situation. This helps you acknowledge the feelings of the other person, and will immediately alert them that you are listening. Showing empathy is an effective way to indicate that you care about the relationship. It lowers defenses and eases negative feelings.
A general rule of physics that everyone is familiar with is that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. While stonewalling is a clear sign of disengagement, empathy is the opposite, and shows engagement, as it is indicative of a caring connection.
Research, such as this article by Linda Graham MFT, shows the dramatic change that happens to the brain's structure when you attain a secure bond with your partner. Partners share mirror neurons that allow each other to feel what the other person feels, think like they think, and anticipate their next move.
When you express emotion, particularly empathy, it helps to establish a secure bond with your partner. Although it might not ease the negative feelings during an acute period of stonewalling, the feeling of being understood may help de-escalate the situation.
Try to get into your partner's thoughts to figure out what must have been so hurtful for them to react this way. This will help break the negative chain of action-reaction, which is the first step towards breaking down the wall.
While showing empathy might not ease your partner's negative feelings, it will deescalate the situation by letting them know that you have a connection with them.
Feeling understood, especially by a loved one, can ease even the most negative emotions. And in the case of a stonewalling partner, diffuse a difficult situation. Try to:
When your partner behaves miserably, it is a reflection of how they are and not of who you are.
If you are able to depersonalize, you can evaluate your partner's behavior instead of who either of you are as people, which will allow you to release yourself from the need to be defensive.
Separate yourself from the situation by changing how you view the behaviors. For example, instead of thinking that you are being ignored, think of it as a “cool down” period.
Studies have shown that it is impossible to have a rational conversation when one partner's emotions are running high. It is also impossible to have genuine compassion for your partner during these times of intense emotion. Until both partners are calm, you will only hurt each other.
It might be difficult to depersonalize if you are the type of person who prefers to resolve conflicts quickly to lessen your anxiety, so while taking timeouts to allow your partner to calm down may be difficult, it will help resolve the problem in the long run.
Depersonalization will help you to separate the person and the issues so that you can face things from a less emotional stance. It’s important to:
When your partner gives you the silent treatment, it can leave you with feelings of “Why should I bother if they don’t?”
But this silent stand-off only fuels the fire. Because no one wants to be the first person to back down. No one wants to start a conversation they don’t know how to have.
By making yourself open and available to talk, you’re telling your partner that “I get you need some space. But when you want to talk, I’m here”. It’s an open invitation to verbalize how they are feeling and work through the problems.
Although it might feel like you’re backing down, being open and available to talk offers a bridge of communication. Before walking away from a stonewalling episode, be sure to:
It’s easy to get caught up in the blame game when things get heated. We all want to feel vindicated or justified for our feelings. And throwing blame around with “you” phrases can become part and parcel of an argument.
But no one wins in these situations. With neither person accepting responsibility, there is no give and take. And no grounds to move forward.
By taking accountability for your part in the problems, you’re signaling to your partner that you’re in this together. And that you want to try and understand their perspective.
This might not be an immediate resolution as some time apart to cool off and collect your thoughts is likely needed. But when you come back together, an exchange of “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that” is a good starting block to resolve the issues.
Although it’s all too easy to start slinging mud around during an argument, it’s important to:
Being in a relationship can be stressful, particularly if there are communication problems. And while dedicating time to work on these issues is important, so is self-care.
Ensuring you make time for yourself will give you the energy, both physically and mentally to work on your relationship. Whether it’s going to watch a movie, taking a long bath, catching up with friends, or hitting the gym, self-care should always be a priority.
A difficult relationship can be extremely draining, especially on your mental health. Make sure you are a priority by:
Although your partner probably has a few annoying habits, you wouldn’t change them for it. And the same rule should apply when it comes to their stonewalling attitude.
Despite the frustrations, taking time to reassure your loved one that you don’t want to change them is important. The discussions around “things need to change” could easily be misinterpreted as “they need to change”. And this could raise the walls even higher.
The closed-off behavior is undoubtedly causing problems in your relationship. But better communication can be built with time. And not at the expense of changing who your partner is.
If you’re constantly talking about things changing, your partner may start to think you want to change who they are. This will bring more pressure and even higher walls, so instead:
Getting caught up in the negative emotions caused by your partner’s behavior is understandable. But try not to lose sight of their good qualities. And why you’re with them.
Their otherwise caring nature, their funny quirks, their amazing cooking skills… These are the bones of your relationship and shouldn’t be tainted by their inability to communicate in the way you need them to.
Make time to convey these good qualities to your partner, to help reinforce the bond you have together. Phrases such as “I really appreciated when you…” or “I love it when we…” will help your partner feel valued in your relationship.
Although it may be difficult to see amidst a stonewalling episode when the dust has settled, try to:
We all need some breathing space and time out to gather our thoughts. But it’s important not to let this time drag on as the longer you don’t talk, the harder it is to start again.
Schedule some time that suits you both to talk. This could be when the kids go to bed, or after dinner when you’re both feeling more relaxed. And if your partner won’t commit to a time, make one and tell them that you would appreciate them being there.
When making time to talk, it’s important to:
Breaking down the barriers of stonewalling is rarely a one-sided event. It takes both people to make changes. And to commit to those changes.
If you say you’re going to step away when things get heated, make sure you do it. If you say you’re going to spend more quality time together, don’t let other plans take over.
It’s easy to get distracted but these commitments are important. They build trust and security, which could be key steps to overcome your partner’s stonewalling behavior.
Keeping your word shows dedication to your relationship. Make sure you:
Sometimes, the best thing you can do is seek some outside help to get your relationship back on track. Though this will be a difficult step, it’s the chance to lay everything on the table. And work out how best to iron out the creases in your relationship.
Your partner may be reluctant to go down this route but reassure them that you’ll be by their side the whole time. And that you want to do everything you can to solve the problems.
Point out that this is couple’s counseling and not you pointing the finger at them. It’s an opportunity to find out the reasons behind the communication issues and to find a positive way forward.
Although counseling may seem like a daunting prospect, it can be a great safe space for couples to work through their problems. When deciding on the right counselor, try to:
To wrap up, we’ve discussed that the term “stonewalling” in relationships refers to one partner’s refusal to cooperate, communicate, or consider the other’s opinions. It has hurtful effects to both partners, and is one of the major predictors of divorce.
Applying the suggestions in this post can help stop the negative effects of stonewalling in your relationship.
If you find yourself in a relationship where you’re having trouble communicating, then I recommend checking out a book that I wrote with Barrie Davenport, called Mindful Relationship Habits.
It covers 25 habits you can build in order to improve both the communication and intimacy of your relationships.