Brian felt pretty good about how he handled conflict: when a disagreement came up with his wife Shannon, he walked away. His strategy seemed simple enough, and he avoided feeling overwhelmed by the argument or the risk that the quarrel would escalate into something violent. That’s why he was surprised when Shannon accused him of stonewalling and said his behavior was abusive.
Lisa also had a game plan when she and her husband Deron had a falling-out: she left to hang out with friends. She’s learned that Deron will fold like a cheap suit if she just lets him sit by himself long enough. Last time, however, one of her friends said she was stonewalling and challenged her to look into how her behavior could damage her marriage.
Neither Brian nor Lisa ever thought of themselves as abusive partners. When they investigated, however, they learned what stonewalling is and how it can hurt their lover. That motivated them to uncover why they did it, and more importantly, how to stop.
What Stonewalling Is and Isn’t
Stonewalling is when one partner disengages from the other and becomes unavailable–like a stone wall has been put between the them. A person can stonewall by physically leaving the scene or just sitting silently without responding. Either way, it’s avoiding conversations or solving problems by being uncooperative or by shutting down for days or weeks. Stonewalling also includes dismissing everything the other person says as boring, unreasonable, or unimportant as a reason to not participate.
Stonewalling is when one partner disengages from the other and becomes unavailable.
Taking a time-out to calm down is not stonewalling; it’s good emotional management. This pause allows us to rein in our feelings and think through how to best solve the problem. The difference is whether or not we return to discuss the issue later. If we don’t, then it’s probably stonewalling because we’re using our non-response as a dirty fighting tactic to get our way.
A time-out, when done right, includes telling our partner that we need a little while to calm down. This helps reassure our mate that the topic, and their voice, is important so they don’t misread our actions. Then, after our emotions drain away, we need to return to the conversation as soon as it is practical. Keeping our word and re-engaging makes it easier for our significant other to trust our intentions the next time.
How Emotional Withdrawal Hurts
Shannon rotated between feeling angry, hurt, abandoned, and rejected when Brian withdrew. Sometimes she escalated—to a near desperation level—her attempts to engage him in conversation as she strove to feel heard. Other times, she tried unsuccessfully to stonewall him.
Brian wrongly interpreted her erratic behavior as proof that avoiding conflict with her was his best move. As he learned about stonewalling, he began to see that he was contributing greatly to her reaction. While Shannon could improve how she approached and responded to Brian, he realized he had the power to lessen their conflicts all by himself.
Deron became more and more frustrated with always having to give in without being heard. He began to doubt his self worth and sometimes wondered if he was going crazy. His feelings of being worthless, powerless, and hopeless left him depressed as Lisa continued to shut him out.
Stonewalling is one of the most destructive habits we can do in our relationships.
Relationship expert John Gottman identifies stonewalling as one of the most destructive habits we can do in our relationships. In fact, he says it usually foretells the demise of the relationship as the partners become more distant and begin leading separate lives. This sobering reality hit both Brian and Lisa pretty hard as that was not the warm, emotionally-intimate marriage they wanted.
While both could now see how their behavior was harmful to their spouses and relationships, the question remained, is stonewalling abusive? When we consider that “abuse” is another way of saying “treatment that hurts our partner,” then the answer is obviously “yes.” Whether we intended it to hurt or not doesn’t matter, although deliberate manipulation (Lisa) is far more serious than unwittingly causing harm (Brian).
Why We Use Stonewalling
Unintentional stonewalling may be an immature, bad habit left over from our childhood. Maybe we saw our parents using it so it seems natural. It could be that it was a way that we protected ourselves, got attention, or expressed anger. However, continuing those patterns in our adult relationships no longer serves us well.
Another possible reason is because we feel inadequate about our ability to communicate. We’re afraid that we’ll say the wrong thing if we try to take part in the dialogue. If we’ve made things worse in the past when trying to resolve problems with others, then shutting down may feel like the safer alternative.
Stonewalling is often a defense mechanism that is activated when people feel overwhelmed by negative emotions, like fear or shame. We try to control the situation and avoid our uncomfortable feelings by steering clear of the conflict. This may be a temporary fix, but it creates more conflict and uncomfortable feelings for us to deal with.
How to Stop
What can you do to stop stonewalling if you realize you’ve been conducting it on someone? The first step is to recognize it as a bad habit, then commit to changing your response to these situations. Take responsibility for your stonewalling behavior, regardless of what your partner is doing.
If you’re not confident with your communication skills, work to improve them. Every skill has to be learned sometime, and all of us possess the ability to improve. The feeling of competence you’ll get as you grow is great motivation to do the work.
Read books, check out websites, or listen to podcasts on the subject. Look past the emotions and words your partner is expressing and try to identify their underlying needs. Practice conflict resolution and communication skills, like active listening and journaling.
When you begin to feel frustrated and angry, use calming techniques like deep breathing or taking a time-out. Then, when you’re feeling calmer, push yourself to go back to the conversation. Self-soothing keeps those powerful negative emotions from hijacking our behavior.
Self-soothing keeps powerful negative emotions from hijacking our behavior.
Go deeper. Ask yourself, “What’s so scary about conflict for me?” Once we realize we’re reacting to past hurts or exaggerated fears, we can free ourselves from the control those distorted thoughts have over us. Working with a counselor is particularly helpful in identifying and healing these core issues.
Stonewalling is an unhealthy way to communicate in a relationship. Once we see ourselves using this bad behavior and understand the damage it does to our partner and relationship, we should be motivated to stop. Identifying the causes can direct us toward what needs to change so we can stop stonewalling. Learning to communicate in a positive, respectful way takes a little work and commitment, but the fulfilling relationship created is truly worth it.
Jesus, in his most famous sermon, said, “God blesses those who work for peace.” Note that he did not say, “God blesses those who avoid conflict.” What’s the difference?
God sees and knows everything. He knows that we humans have disagreements with each other. He also knows that the best thing we can do is to resolve those differences in a kind, loving, and peaceful manner.
Screaming matches or violence will not create the loving, harmonious relationships that will bless us. But we won’t enjoy a great bond with others if we don’t listen, engage, and actively work to resolve issues with them. Otherwise, resentment and bitterness will set in.
The blessing is found in the middle between violent altercation and stonewalling avoidance. That central ground takes work. It means we are called to stretch ourselves, develop better communication skills, and address the emotions that cause us to pull away. We experience true, long-term peace when we follow his guidance.