Here we are, gathering together, talking about our life and marital struggles to learn how to create a life that feels more like what we once dreamed of being married would be like. I love these cozy conversations because they are so different from those conversations where all we do is commiserate together about what is wrong with our spouse and how difficult it is to love them the way they are. These conversations help us look objectively at what is happening in our marriage without pointing fingers of blame so that we can look beyond what we see and experience on the surface and start understanding what we are seeing. This place of awareness is sometimes an awkward position because we still feel stuck in the pattern, but as we commit to learning and changing, we start to see the fruit of our labors. This week we are looking at what relationship expert John Gottman calls the fourth horseman, stonewalling, and we’re going to talk about stonewalling to a disengaged marriage.
Stonewalling typically begins to appear a bit later in the marital relationship, usually after the negativity from criticism, contempt, and defensiveness become so unbearable that shutting down and disengaging begins to be a viable way to deal with the emotional flooding occurring for the individual that is shutting down. During a normal conversation, each person is engaging. While one person is talking, the other person indicates that they are listening by making eye contact, nodding their head, throwing in an understanding word, or asking clarifying questions. When a spouse is stonewalling, they are not providing any signs that they are engaged, which often has the partner reacting in ways that push the stonewaller deeper into their state of emotional overload.
Today I’m going to dig into a bit more of what stonewalling could look like, why people resort to stonewalling, why it is so destructive to your relationship, and steps to start eliminating it.
If you remember episode 40 where I shared about Bids For Connection and then the follow up to that in episode 41 where I talked about Your Response To Bids For Connection, the partner starting the conversation is sharing a bid for their spouse’s attention, now, how that bid for connection was initiated is so very important because it sets the tone for where the conversation can go, in episode 45 I shared how to have Better Marital Communication By Considering The Start-Up or how you initiate the conversation. Now, how the spouse responds to that bid for connection determines whether they are creating connection or disconnection, stonewalling is turning away from your partner, and it is a withdrawal from your relationship’s Emotional Bank Account and you know what happens to our bank accounts when we take out more that we deposit. The interesting thing, though, is that when it comes to our emotional bank account, now that I think about it, it’s sort of like what happens to our emotions when our bank account gets low, we stop interacting in healthy ways, our unhealthy habits kick in and quickly wipe out our account, heading us into walking on thin ice in our intimate relationship.
What stonewalling looks like
There are many ways to disengage from an uncomfortable conversation, start watching peoples interactions, and learn for yourself, but here are a few examples:
- Not listening, engaging, ignoring, turning away, looking at the dog, getting up and doing something, looking at the phone
- Changing the subject
- Reacting with defensiveness instead of engaging in an adult conversation
- Telling the other person that they are making up stories about how they are acting (this could be more along the lines of gaslighting), denying participation in the act of stonewalling
- Being dismissive about what is brought up in conversation, including physical actions like eye-rolling or head shaking
- Being physically absent: working long hours, hiding in the garage or in front of the screen for long periods or finding ways to be away from the house disproportionaltely from the time spent at home
- Silent treatment, acting better than, dismissing
- Physically up and leaving the conversation
- Never addressing their dismissiveness at a later time when they are emotionally regulated, avoiding bringing the topic back up
- Short disengaged responses like “I’m fine.” “It doesn’t matter.”
- Avoiding conversation to avoid conflict
When you start to recognize that your partner is stonewalling, your best reaction is to stop the conversation because your partner has shut you and what you are saying out. Tell them that you perceive that they are disengaged and that you are going to exit the conversation and that if they are willing to re-engage, let you know, and you’ll come back to the discussion. By no means do you want to raise your voice or criticize because it will only create more disengagement. It is not your job to “fix” your partner’s emotional patterns, but as you learn to empathize and understand what may be going on for them, it is your opportunity to open up to how you are feeling and give them space. Again, you are influencing the health and future of your relationship because you aren’t engaging in unhealthy interaction. This is your opportunity to step back and take some time to self-soothe, regulate, evaluate YOUR actions and let them decide how they want to move forward.
Why people resort to stonewalling
Often people haven’t learned how to deal with conflict, so they shut down (freeze), retaliate (fight), pacify, and people please (fawn), or run (flight), and all of these are primal protective reactions. The ones you or your partner gravitate towards are the ones you adopted early on in your life in response to what you perceived as a threat, and now it has become your go-to response when “danger” appears. The truth, though, is that actual danger isn’t what is happening; you can pause and ask yourself, “Am I in danger right now?” most likely, the answer is no, and if it is yes, then we have a whole different conversation to dive into.
Stonewalling or silent treatment could also have been a taught behavior; maybe a parent or early childhood mentor used it in their marital relationship, or it could have been used on the child as a way of parenting. When one has been mentored in this way of dealing with conflict, they don’t learn the opposite of stonewalling, which is to have an open, honest conversation about working through the conflict.
Learning how to communicate with each other is crucial, and all it takes is being open and honest. Ask yourself why you are hiding from the one person you vowed to be closest to. Stonewalling appears on the outside to be a way to control an outcome and appear powerful but often is utilized because they feel powerless and have low self-confidence in themselves and their ability to present their ideas and have them potentially be “rejected.” But we know here that other people can’t reject us and our opinions. We can only do that to ourselves, and having different opinions in our marriages helps create conversation and growth.
Stonewalling seems like a way out, but it isn’t effective in building the relationship; it only erodes and pushes intimacy away. If you are having intimacy problems in your relationship, you can look at all of the topics we have discussed over the last few months and conclude why. When you are disconnected emotionally from your partner, sex isn’t desirable; sex becomes an action you do because “you’re supposed to” or an activity you participate in in hopes of controlling your spouse. What you will discover is that as you work through many of the emotional issues I talk about here in AwakenYou in your marriage, the intimate connection begins to grow in your relationship where you are then sharing sex out of desire instead of obligation or fear.
Why stonewalling is so destructive to your marriage
Stonewalling in of itself has you shutting down. When you are shut down, you are disengaged, which does nothing to build the relationship up, resolve problems, better get to know your (and yourself), and create connection. It does the opposite, which is how it slowly erodes a relationship. By the time the relationship gets to stonewalling, it has already gotten to a place where the couple isn’t working together; they are often at the point of living parallel lives. Studies show that up to 85% of men are the stonewallers in relationships; according to John Gottman, men often react to conflict with more physiological stress than women do, and stonewalling is a way to appear neutral and stay out of conflict.
Because women are better able to deal with physiological stress, it is more difficult for them to understand why their partner is withdrawing and familiar for them to push against it, blaming them for not participating in the relationship. Secondly, when a woman gets to the place in the marriage where she is resorting to stonewalling, the relationship is often in a more sensitive state and closer to the possibility of divorce.
Stonewalling indicates an unwillingness to work on relationship differences which is crucial to the success of the marriage and often can have the other person feeling neglected or abused.
How to eradicate this destructive habit
Can we say it all together: AWARENESS. By now, you all have heard this word on auto-repeat for a good reason, what we don’t know can hurt us, what we can start to see from a different perspective can give us insight and a new way to seek solutions. You are taking the first step to eliminating this destructive habit by becoming aware of the roots of where this defense mechanism comes from. Now, you could take this information and throw it in the face of your partner if they are the stonewaller, but that is not useful. From here, you are first going to become aware of how you are showing up and how you may be doing your version of stonewalling, or you may be contributing to your partner’s reaction. Let me remind you that we are all in control of how we show up in life. Regardless of how someone else is showing up, we can always choose a reaction that dissipates conflict instead of inflaming it.
Begin to pay attention to how your partner shows up when you bring up conversations that typically shut them down; how do they react? How can you find empathy and understanding with how they show up or even curiosity? Could you eventually find space to ask them about how they are reacting and why? Go back to my episode on conversation startups and start planning different ways to bring up important conversations. When you see your partner slipping into their version of stonewalling, put up your white flag version of a pause (go back to Emotional Regulation In Your Marriage, episode 35).
For the person who is stonewalling, learning how to regulate your emotions is so important and learning how to recognize that you are slipping into withdrawal or wanting to run away and then paying attention, get in touch with your senses, really listen to what your partner is saying and letting them know that you might not be able to participate in the conversation right now, and then promise that you will come back to it after taking time to self-soothe, find out more about Self-Soothing To A Happier Marriage, ep 38. It’s so important to recognize what you are experiencing and then share it with your partner so that you both can learn and grow.
Being frustrated is a normal emotion and taking the action of stonewalling is not helping eliminate the cause of the frustration; it is only keeping you in a cycle of being frustrated numbing out.
So now you have something new to pay attention to in your life and your marriage, and I want to hear what you see more clearly in your marriage. Stonewalling is giving the impression to your partner that you couldn’t care less about the relationship or where it is headed – is that the message you want to come through because one day your partner might decide to follow through on that action, and wouldn’t it be sad if you never expressed what you were really feeling?
If you have discovered that you or your partner is stonewalling and you’d like some help navigating to the other side where you can open up and share honestly, then I’d love to talk to you about what that process looks like; I’d love to help you AwakenYou in your marriage! Book your consult today!
I am a life coach who works with women and couples struggling with how their lives and marriage feel through awakening their true selves. My process isn’t about changing your partner; it’s about discovering who you are so that you can AwakenYou in your life and marriage, which by the way, will have you see how your partner is magically changing too. If you’re ready to take yourself to a place where you can fall back in love with your life and your spouse, then schedule your program inquiry call today and let’s talk about your next steps to a brand new life you are crazy in love with!