This article will describe the difference between physiological stonewalling and stonewalling abuse. We will also talk about how to respond to stonewalling in a relationship when it happens and provide stonewalling examples.

This post was recently featured on a podcast episode of Optimal Living Daily.

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Define stonewalling

What does “stonewalling” mean?

John Gottman calls stonewalling one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse that happens in romantic relationships.

Evidence reveals that it happens when a partner feels overwhelmed, shuts down emotionally, and breaks eye contact. It is seen in both healthy and dysfunctional relationships. People stonewall in happy relationships; they just do it much less.

Stonewalling behavior is a highly gendered behavior according to Gottman’s research men. The rate among men is 85% of the time vs. 15% for women. When women stonewall, it’s usually a serious sign of marital distress.

When not a manipulation strategy, stonewalling is basically a flooding response. Flooding or Diffuse Physiological Arousal in men and women is the body’s alarm system to help humans escape a perceived threat.

According to the Gottman Institute, flooding is:

“a sensation of feeling psychologically and physically overwhelmed during the conflict, making it virtually impossible to have a productive, problem-solving discussion.”

What does it look like?

Signs of stonewalling

To the stonewalled partner, the behavior looks bored or disinterested. He remains expressionless and may cross his arms and look away. His body language gives no indication that he’s even listening.

Inside, however, tells a very different story with symptoms including:

  • escalated heart rate (85 or 100 bpm)
  • he is feeling pressure in his chest
  • he’s lost “about 30 IQ points,” and
  • he’s ruminating.

He’s overwhelmed and trying to comfort himself through internal dialogue. In this self-talk, he justifies his innocence and projects blame outwardly (“Oh ya, she says that, but what about her? She does things that are even worse!”). It is a coping mechanism or defense mechanism which causes people to shut down rather than calm down and re-engage.

The stonewaller often tells the researcher that he was trying to “calm things down” by not saying anything. He’ll tell researchers that he realizes that anything he says (given his self-talk) will just make matters worse.

Regardless of what his motives are, the behavior is deeply upsetting to the partner, who tries even harder to argue their point. It escalates a fight instead of defusing one.

Stonewalling abuse and the stonewaller personality

This response to emotional flooding is distinctly different from “the silent treatment.” The silent treatment is emotional abuse because the perpetrator is attempting to control or manipulate his or her partner into doing what they say. Refusing to engage is emotionally abusive and can go on for hours or days until the victim capitulates.

What happens during stonewalling?

During an argument, the partners’ nervous systems are not in alignment. One partner can become overwhelmed and stop communicating.

This activates the other partner’s response by becoming increasingly vocal and active in an attempt to be heard. The partner feels abandoned or disrespected. Two very different things are being experienced.

Effects of stonewalling

  1. Communication breakdown: this behavior is a barrier to open communication. Emotions aren’t expressed, concerns aren’t addressed, and neither can find a greater understanding of the conflict.
  2. Escalation: Instead of calming down your partner, stonewalling escalates, frustrates, and angers the other person. They often intensify their volume or negative emotions to attempt to break through the wall.
  3. Emotional disconnection: Whether intentional or not, this behavior communicates indifference, rejection, or a dismissive attitude. Instead of caring and love, the stonewaller invalidates their partner’s concerns. Over time, this can erode overall satisfaction, trust, and intimacy.
  4. Resentment: As frustration builds in the partner wanting to talk (or fight) about the issue, so does resentment. Emotional distance grows from a sense of futility. The risk to the relationship grows.
  5. Your partner’s well-being: When we feel listened to, we feel accepted, worthwhile and valued, and our sense of emotional well-being grows. The opposite happens when someone tries to block communication. In addition to stress and anxiety, the partner’s mental health and self-esteem are impacted.
  6. While stonewalling can be a form of gaslighting, particularly when it is done for power or control, this isn’t always true. Someone who is flooded isn’t “intentionally” behaving in this destructive way.

Antidote to stonewalling

Once a stonewaller understands what flooding or Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA) is, their job is to calm themselves down. His partner can step back and allow him to do that. Then both can re-engage more calmly after an agreed-upon time of at least 20 minutes.

How to respond to stonewalling

Dealing with stonewalling is straightforward and direct. Both need to call a “time-out” stop the interaction and separate for 20 minutes.

The stonewaller can say, “I’m feeling flooded, and I need to calm down. I will return.” If the partner becomes aware of their partner’s flooding, they can also call a time-out.

The one calling the timeout should be the person who checks in to continue the conflictual conversations.

This is one factor that distinguishes an abusive stonewaller from an ordinary stonewaller. Once the distinction is clear and agreed upon, the abusive stonewaller will not return until their demands are met.

How to do a 20-minute timeout:

  • Engage in deep breathing by counting 4 on the in-breath and 5 on the out-breath.
  • Tense and relax your muscles using any number of methods including the Jacobsonian Relaxation Technique.
  • Imagine that one’s tense muscles are heavy and warm.
  • Close one’s eyes and imagine a calm and relaxed scene that would produce a relaxation response.
  • If they begin to ruminate, focus back on the image or one’s breathing.

When to seek couples counseling

When stonewalling is a manipulative or controlling strategy, seek help right away. When it is deliberate, it is a form of emotional abuse.

The partner who refuses to communicate is often drawing the situation out. The goal is to prevent the other partner from exploring other options and to gain the upper hand.

In other cases, stonewalling is a trauma response. Individuals who have suffered trauma in the past may respond by using stonewalling as a means of self-protection. It is a form of shielding oneself from further hurt, akin to fainting when under extreme pressure.

Learning how to prevent stonewalling is a teachable skill. Our experienced professionals can work with you and your partner to build these skills in a couples therapy intensive. We offer these in-person or in online therapy.