What is Stonewalling?
While not quite as damaging to a relationship as contempt, stonewalling gives it a run for it’s money as one of the top four negative communication styles Dr. John Gottman has found contributes to divorce. He calls these the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Let’s start with a good operating definition. Stonewalling at its most extreme is silent treatment. But in lesser extremes, it’s essentially a way of emotionally distancing from a relationship or conversation.
What does this look like?
This could be with a glazed overlook when you’re partner is talking with you, walking into the next room saying “uh huh” or something a little more obvious where you’re shutting down a conversation by rolling over in bed (when you usually don’t do this) or just saying “I can’t talk about this right now” but you do not really return to the conversation either.
Okay so self-disclosure, stonewalling was something I didn’t realize I did until I heard it wasn’t just about silent treatment! I don’t do silent treatment in my relationships, but in the past, I’ve definitely had the tendency to withdraw or distance myself. You may have heard of a concept called Pursuers and Distancers. Most relationships have one of each. A pursuer is someone who perhaps feels abandoned or incredibly disconnected when there is not ongoing communication or connection in the light of the conflict and a distancer is often someone who wants some space and may feel stifled without a break in the conflict. Guess what? In my marriage, I’m the distancer. But I haven’t always had the words to know how to express that emotionally overwhelmed to the point I’m likely not going to respond well and to please ask for a temporary break from the conversation!
If you’re like other couples, this may turn into blatant silent treatment such as not hearing via text or phone from your partner for a few days or maybe you can sense the icy silence at home but your partner says “I’m fine, I’m just tired.” There can be a lot of what we call plausible deniability in stonewalling…your partner may appear to have logical reasons they have emotionally withdrawn because they do not have the words to express their emotions and needs about the situation.
How can we do better?
The best thing we can do when we’re prone to stonewalling is to learn how to regulate our own emotions. We’re likely numbing out which can often be a response to feeling intense emotions. So learning how to engage in self-soothing or asking for a temporary break (20 minutes to no longer than 24 hours) may help us to not withdraw emotionally from an important conversation with our partner.