There are many predictors that a marriage may be heading for divorce. Often, we engage in these without even realizing we are doing it, and do not think of the damage we may be causing in our marriage.
John Gottman of The Gottman Institute is well known for his ability to predict that marriage will end in divorce and has studied this extensively. He has identified several behaviors that are not only detrimental to our relationships but also push them closer to divorce if left unchanged.
Four of these predictors are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Today, I am going to talk about Stonewalling and how we can pay more attention to it, recognize it, and do something about it.
So, what is stonewalling? Stonewalling is exactly what it sounds like. It is metaphorically building a wall between you and your partner. Stonewalling can look a lot of ways but it’s essentially turning your back on your partner either literally or figuratively. Either way, it is frustrating to experience, easy to default to, and damaging to your relationship.
Here are some examples:
Your partner is trying to talking with you about something that is important to them and you walk away.
You shut down and stop talking, and tune out mentally and emotionally. You stop responding and just let them keep talking without saying a word.
You just completely disengaged and start doing something else like look at your phone, watch tv, leave the room and go work on something else. Maybe you just leave the house.
You change the subject and do not address their concern.
Sound familiar? Maybe you recognize some of these behaviors in yourself. Maybe you recognize the in your spouse too. Honestly, we have all done this before and had it done to us at some point. But when this happens, it does not give you or your partner anything to work with. Whichever one of you is trying to communicate or work through something has nowhere to go when the other shuts down.
So, why do we do this ?
Sometimes we use to stonewalling because we just don’t want to hear “it” and don’t want to deal with “it”. We figure out that if we stonewall or just shut down that eventually the other person will get frustrated and walk away. They will leave us alone and go away.
Then we give each other the silent treatment for a day or two, wait for it to blow over, think it will be forgotten and we won’t ever have to deal with it. The silent treatment is just another version of stonewalling.
Maybe we just don’t want to make it worse. We don’t know what to do with this information that our partner is giving us and we don’t know what to say. When we don’t know what to do our mind is confused, and a confused mind will always do nothing. So we sit there quietly and don’t say anything.
Typically we stonewall because we are being “flooded” emotionally. Meaning that someone is coming at us with a lot of information. Maybe we are arguing, and yelling and there is a lot of complaining, questions, demands. When a lot of stuff is coming at you like this, your mind goes into fight or flight mode.
Flight can be going into another room, getting in the car, leaving the house, or even just walking away to watch TV or do something else. Sometimes, flight can be walking out on the relationship completely. These are all ways to escape the situation at the time but they do not solve anything. In fact, they make the space between you larger and the emotional disconnect wider.
Often times, men to go into fight and women to go into flight, but this is not always the case. I have worked with many men that go into flight, or even do both. There is no exact equation for what one person will do in this situation and there are many factors that affect our response.
Now we know we have all done it and that it’s not helpful and that it will actually create more problems in our relationship. So what can we do about it?
The most effective thing you can do is stay present and continue to try change the interaction. You want to be able to reach a healthy emotionally mature place so that you can have real conversations and find a solution. You do not want to keep rehashing the problem and figuring out who was to blame.
If you are the one that is doing the stonewalling you have to see it in the moment that you’re doing it. That’s a hard one to do. There’s probably some reason why you’re doing it. It might be fear; maybe you don’t know what to do, maybe you need to think about it, maybe you just have a lot on your mind and you can’t focus on what your partner is saying.
It’s completely OK for you to recognize it in that moment , take a step back and pause. Explain to your partner that you understand that this issue is important to them. That right now is not a great time for you but you do want to talk about it. You want to be able to really be present for the issue and give it your time and attention. Ask if you can set up a time to talk about in the next day or two. Then do it!
If you are the one that is being stonewalled, you can become increasingly frustrated, and fast. Typically when this happens we raise our voice and our tone gets harsh. We get more angry and think if we talk louder that the other person is going to listen to us and hear us. But guess what? They are not hearing us. In fact, it is really quite the opposite.
When someone is yelling at us, we feel like we have to protect ourselves. So we go into protection mode and get ready to defend ourselves. That means we either put on the emotional armor and defend, or we build the wall to stay safe. So when it escalates and we come at them harder, they are hearing us less because they are now in protection mode.
So if you are being stonewalled stepping away is your only answer. Escalating, yelling, flying off the handle is not helpful, it’s destructive. It causes more issues and it makes both of you feel bad so -step away. That doesn’t mean you walk out and say nothing. That would be stonewalling. You clearly state that appears to not be a good time but you still want to talk about it when they are ready. Tell your partner that you would to so set up a time in a day or two when it might be a better and they are able to engage with you.
Every relationship is going to have issues that need to be addressed and things that need to be discussed. How we navigate those issues can be the marker for whether or not the marriage can be fixed and can feel good or if you’re headed towards divorce.
Stonewalling, shutting down, completely disconnecting and ignoring your partner is not going to be helpful. So hopefully these ideas give you another option and something to think about the next time you experience this. The first way to make change is to be able to aware of what needs to change, so you are on your way.
If you would like to find out other ways to engage with your partner and create connection as opposed to distance, I invite you to schedule a complimentary Exploratory Session with me. Let’s see if we are a good fit to work together and get you started on the path to creating a better relationship.