Stonewalling is one of Gottman’s four predictors of an impending divorce or relationship dissolution, colloquially known as the Four Horsemen that herald a relationship’s demise. In the Emotion-Focused Therapy psychological framework, stonewalling is recognized as a maladaptive communication dynamic where one party pursues, and the other party withdraws. The more the pursuer presses on in an argument, the more the withdrawer retreats into silence, which is often then perceived by the pursuer as disinterest or boredom.
Driven by hurt and possible feelings of abandonment, the pursuer then advances in their altercation even further, which then exacerbates the cycle of conflict. From the pursuer’s perspective, an exchange of this nature can look like this:
It’s happening again. You press home your point on a recurring debate that has never been resolved. You feel yourself getting angrier and angrier, while you speak louder and faster. You see the familiar mask come over your partner’s face; cold and without emotion. They turn away and continue working at the desk, checked out of the conversation altogether. You don’t give up and continue your point – can’t they see how painful this is? How can they not care when you hurt so much? Do they not want the relationship anymore?
Perception vs Reality
While this is happening, the pursuer may have no idea that their partner isn’t bored or uninterested. In fact, the withdrawer may actually be caring so much that seeing their partner so upset sets off a staggering chain of physiological symptoms – accelerated heartbeat, sweaty palms, shortness of breath – they are in a state of panic. Because all of this is very overwhelming, they shut down.
As the argument escalates further, neither has any inkling that the near-hysterical pleas, and the walled-off reaction, are all cries of a need to draw each other closer.
Addressing stonewalling for the Pursuer
Understand that just because your partner is not displaying any emotions outwardly, does not indicate that they do not care. This tension between perception and reality is often the root cause of an escalating argument, and needs to be addressed first.
Beyond this, you need to be mindful of how you phrase your points in the conversation. Do your points seem accusatory? What is your tone of voice like? Starting a conversation gently will help set its trajectory. Body language and other non-verbal cues (folded arms, standing over your partner, angry gesturing, etc) are critical to any communication dynamic – whether positive or negative. Consider inviting your partner to sit on the bed with you rather than towering over him/her. This positions the ensuing conversation as a discussion, instead of a confrontation. In addition, you need to also give your partner the necessary space to process their thoughts and feelings, and possibly revisit a topic multiple times to resolve it, instead of expecting that it can/be settled immediately.
Addressing stonewalling for the Withdrawer
If you tend towards being a withdrawer in arguments, you will need to work on how you communicate as well. An important step is to begin building better self-awareness of the physiological signs that indicate that you are feeling anxiety/trapped/attacked. By understanding yourself properly, you can then help your partner to better understand you.
In addition, it will be a good idea to work on articulating your feelings to your partner in a clear and concise way with “I” statements. (I am getting overwhelmed, Jo), and ask for a time-out when you need to (Can we speak about this in an hour?). While it is important to take some time out to de-escalate and have a breather, it is also imperative to set a time to go back to the conversation, to manage the potential feelings of abandonment and anxiety that your partner may otherwise experience.
This de-escalation is a critical step in halting what can turn into an abusive and toxic communication dynamic, which can result in both parties’ growing frustration, hurt, and resentment against each other. Remember, if such a communication dynamic has already developed, then one of the Four Horsemen has already arrived, which makes it imperative to address the issue and arrest the relationship’s deterioration.
More to come
If you find yourself deadlocked for some time in this deadly cycle with your partner, do seek help from a professional. We will look further into how a couple can stop stonewalling in the next part of this article.