Stonewalling Signs, Abuse and Preventing it from Ruining Your Relationship

John Gottman coined the four horsemen, a term widely used to describe couples in ‘apocalyptic’ conditions or who are barreling towards divorce. The four horsemen are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and... stonewalling. Each of these communication challenges and responses can cause major problems in your relationships, romantic or otherwise. The first three horsemen are pretty self-explanatory, most people understand what criticism, contempt and defensiveness are and how they present themselves in relationships. What you may not know is that defensiveness is identified as a natural response to criticism in a relationship in the Gottman methodology. While you may have familiarity with Gottman’s first three horsemen, not everyone is familiar with the concept of stonewalling.

Stonewalling is normally a response to contempt (which for the record is a meaner, more severe version of criticism where the partner presents as morally superior). When someone stonewalls, they completely shut down and tune out conversations. If your partner is stonewalling you, they might become silent during arguments or conflict. They may seem to completely tune out what you are saying. They also may categorically dismiss all of your concerns So you may be asking yourself, what are some reasons people resort to stonewalling? Stonewalling is normally a response to “psychological flooding.” The partner metaphorical builds a wall between themselves as a result of feeling overwhelmed. And while this may prevent them from feeling totally overwhelmed, it is not a healthy way to address conflict.

Stonewalling can create a range of problems in a relationship. At the very least, stonewalling can cause partners to feel frustrated, dismissed and on edge. At the very worst, stonewalling can be considered a type of verbal abuse if the stonewaller is behaving like this one purpose. In many cases, stonewalling is a defense mechanism and not something that people do intentionally. While stonewalling is an unhealthy response, it’s not emotional abuse unless there is malicious intent. Stonewalling crosses over into verbal abuse if a partner intentionally uses this tactic to manipulate their partner or make their partner feel insignificant. Even though stonewalling is not necessarily abusive, it is problematic for your relationship. If you are in a relationship with a stonewaller, here are a few tips you can use to deal with your partner and improve the communication in your relationship:

1. Ask for a break during conflicts

Stonewalling is often a result of feeling overwhelmed. It’s important to recognize that anyone can stonewall in a relationship, though so people are more prone to stonewalling than others. So whether shutting down during a conflict is a typical reaction for your partner, or whether they are stonewalling you for the first time, it is important to recognize when it is happening so that you can both take a break from the discussion, or rather, lack thereof. Because your partner isn’t participating at all, it will probably be up to you to recognize the behavior and ask for there to be a break. Taking a break will give both you and your partner time to get your emotions more under control, so that you can approach the conflict in a more constructive way. Conflicts are bound to arise in your relationship. Being able to disagree and work through conflict in a constructive way is how you make a relationship stronger and build a relationship that can go the distance. A huge part of this is knowing when to take a break from conflict so that you can collect your thoughts and keep your emotions in check. Recognizing when to take a break during a conflict because your partner is stonewalling and then actually taking a break, will prevent stonewalling from ruining your relationship. An important note here is that when you take the break you do need to eventually return to the discussion at hand. Taking a break does not mean just walking away and acting like the conflict never happened.

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2. Acknowledge that you are not the “fixer’ in the relationship

If your partner is prone to stonewalling, they might avoid conflict all together because they are unable to process their emotions when they are in a heightened state, or when their emotions are at odds with your emotions. If your partner is averse to conflict, you may feel as if it is your job to bring up or address conflict when it arises, because you doubt that your partner will take on that role. While it is necessary for conflict to be discussed, and normally someone has to take control and bring it up, it is not your job to do this every time. It’s important to acknowledge that you are not the ‘fixer’ in the relationship and it should not always be your job to broach conflicts. If you are consistently the only person to address conflict in your relationship, then you will start to feel an undue emotional burden that can cause you to feel resentful of your partner and relationship. If you want to preserve your relationship, and prevent stonewalling from ruining your relationship, it’s important to not try to fix things at all times. This also extends to the role you play in the middle of a conflict. If you are in a conflict, it’s also not your job to step down so that your partner does not feel aggressed. You do not need to try and fix the problem at hand through compromise just to get it over with. If you don’t immediately jump to try and fix the problem, it gives your partner space to step up and acknowledge their own behavior and make some changes.

3. Lead with empathy

While your partner’s stonewalling behavior is not your fault, understand that stonewalling is often a response to extreme criticism or contempt as defined by the Gottmans. If you begin a conflict or potentially terse conversation with a criticism of your partner, or from a patronizing, morally superior position, they may feel as if you are “coming after them” and instead of engaging in a conversation they will become defensive and/or shut down aka stonewall. To avoid this type of behavior, try approaching difficult conversations with empathy. Instead of pointing out your partner’s bad behavior, or something that they did wrong, express your emotions and try to see things from their point of view. Try to start an empathetic dialogue with your partner so that you can talk through the conflict or problem together as a team. Creating an empathetic and safe space to discuss your problems will lead to better discussion. If you want to prevent stonewalling from ruining your relationship, it’s important to recognize how your actions can cause your partner to stonewall and to understand how to change your actions and attitudes to prevent this.

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4. Trust yourself

If you are being stonewalled by your partner, you may begin to feel as if your feelings are not valid or as if you are making things up. In this way, stonewalling can sometimes lead people to feel as if they’re being gaslighted. If you don’t receive any feedback from your partner during a conflict or confrontation, it can be easy to start doubting yourself or your feelings. Is there really any reason to be mad? Am I blowing things out of proportion? Why am I the one who is always starting the conflict? Rather than letting your stonewalling partner get into your head, trust your emotions and intuitions, even if they aren’t validated by your partner. If possible, try to find ways to express yourself in a way that does not challenge or criticize your partner (like we talked about above), so that you are able to express your emotions. This will hopefully prevent your partner from stonewalling, but if not, it is still important that you trust yourself and try to work out your problems when your partner is in a less emotional state. If you are able to trust yourself and your instincts, you will be more confident when you are having a conflict with your partner, which will help you sort out the root of the problem more easily. Having conviction in your feelings will also inspire you to readdress problems that are not resolved due to stonewalling. Holding your partner accountable and doing the work to move past the conflict in your relationship will prevent stonewalling from ruining your relationship.

5. Prioritize self-care

If you are in a relationship where your partner stonewalls you often, it is common to start to feel dismissed, frustrated or even to start to doubt the validity of your feelings. While there are some things you can do to mitigate your partner’s tendency to stonewall, you can’t always prevent them from completely shutting down. You CAN on the other hand, control your own behavior and choose to be kind to yourself and prioritize self care. If your partner is not validating your feelings, turn inward and reflect on why you are feeling the way that you are. Working through the causes of these emotions can help you feel secure in your reaction and feelings. It is also a great idea to turn to a trusted friend or family member who can help validate your feelings from an outside perspective. Even if they aren’t able to completely validate your feelings, getting your feelings off of your chest is an important part of self-care that will probably make you feel a lot better. Alternatively, it can be helpful to pursue self-care by distracting yourself from the situation at hand. Gottman warms against developing a victim mindset in response to stonewalling, which can often happen if you spend your time dwelling on your partner’s behavior and how unfair it is. Rather than do this, you can pursue other self care activities like doing your favorite hobby, going on a walk to clear your head, journaling, yoga, meditation. Really anything that helps you feel relaxed and good about yourself! Your partner can’t stonewall you forever (and if they can, this may be a sign to get out of the relationship), so getting yourself in a good headspace is important for when you are able to talk things through.

6. Talk to a professional at Relish

At the end of the day, consistent stonewalling is something that needs to be addressed in a relationship because it prevents healthy, necessary communication. But addressing this can be very difficult without the help of a seasoned professional. If stonewalling is a problem in your relationship, and you don’t want it to ruin your relationship, you and your partner should consider turning to Relish, a relationship coaching app. The professional relationship coaches at Relish are trained to help you navigate communication issues in your relationship, including stonewalling and the criticism that often precipitates stonewalling. The relationship coaches help you and your partner evaluate your relationship, set goals and move towards achieving those goals with manageable, actionable plans. The coaches at Relish will be able to help you recognize stonewalling in your relationship, and make progress towards more effective communication as a couple. Relish is much more affordable than traditional counseling. It is also much more convenient. You and your partner can message your relationship coach using the in-app messaging system from the comfort of your couch, or wherever you are.

Relish can improve your overall relationship communication, and prevent stonewalling from ruining your relationship. Get full access to our therapist-approved quizzes, conversation guides, and more free for one week!

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