What is Stonewalling in a Relationship?
Stonewalling is a failure to communicate with a spouse during a stressful conversation which is not always intentional, but is often hurtful. It is characterized by a lack of speech and eye contact, and a felt sense by the partner of being emotionally deprived by silence and withdrawal.
We have solid research on how Stonewalling damages communication.
Stonewalling is a highly gendered behavior. The vast majority of stonewalling behavior comes from men. Only 15% of women stonewall when they feel emotional dysregulation, and it’s a serious red flag when they do.
Wives tell couples therapists that their stonewalling husbands are bored and disengaged from the conversation and have decided to intentionally abandon them
Husbands, on the other hand, report feeling nagged, poked, and prodded to share an emotion-saturated journey into feelings-land.
A destination rarely reached together, as men rarely ask for directions.
What is Stonewalling and What are its Effects?
Stonewalling is an often involuntary physiological defensive response to a sense of feeling overwhelmed. It is grounded in a fear of conflict and a desire to mitigate anger and escalation.
Because most stonewallers (85%) are men, it is challenging for their partners to accept that stonewalling is their body’s automatic go-to method for self-soothing.
It’s an evolutionary adaptation that simply doesn’t work in intimate relationships.
In many cases, it’s a misbegotten attempt to “calm things down.” Stonewalling typically starts out with a male partner becoming physiologically overwhelmed and failing to inform their spouse of that fact.
What happens during stonewalling?
Stonewalling is a dyadic nervous system mismatch in which one partner feels overwhelmed, says nothing, and withdraws, while the other partner feels ignored, speaks more rapidly, and activates.
Two very different things are being experienced:
The partner who is being stonewalled feels abandoned and if it feels true, they may act towards their partner as if it were true.
Meanwhile, the other partner is overwhelmed by the feedback or “input” that they are receiving from the person who feels abandoned. They complain about being nagged which for them also feels very true.
Just because your nervous system tells you you’re being “nagged” doesn’t make it true. Likewise, feeling unsupported emotionally is incredibly painful but that may not be what’s at play here. The danger of holding either resentment can shave years off your life, folks.
These powerful feelings of being ignored or criticized will hijack both of your nervous systems until you both agree to handle Stonewalling in a more effective way.
Is it ever healthy for a man to stonewall his partner?
No. However, stonewalling is often a naturally occurring physiological event that is inherently defensive in nature. When the science behind stonewalling is embraced, the problematic aspects can be addressed in a healthy way, and uncomfortable feelings can be managed with skill. We’ll give you some tips later in the post.
Is stonewalling a form of abuse?If this dynamic is left untreated, both partners can feel abused. Stonewalling is like emotional flatulence. If you pretend nothing is happening, neither partner will pass the smell test. And if those feelings are allowed to escalate, an abusive dynamic will become a bad habit. Stonewalling and escalation are naturally occurring examples of poor emotional hygiene.
How stonewalling unfolds
Perhaps you’ve had this experience: you are having a spirited debate with your husband and the temperature is beginning to rise.
You’re becoming progressively louder and more animated.
Abruptly, a glaze comes over your husband’s face which has become impassive and without expression.
He’s stonewalling. He seems to have zoned out; he’s not listening. He is like a stone-deaf, stone wall.
Research tells us that often when wives face a stonewalling husband, their natural inclination is to crank up the volume, but it doesn’t work. So frustration sets in, and escalation becomes a real possibility.
It’s another case of “The More… The More.” The greater the escalation, the more vigorous the stonewalling becomes.
She’s come to believe that he just doesn’t care, and it upsets her greatly.
Stonewalling by men has many names. Researchers call it the demand/withdrawal negative escalation cycle. It describes the mechanics of how we become increasingly relationally dissatisfied.
In Emotionally-Focused Therapy (EFT) stonewalling is recognized as an aspect of the pursuer/withdrawer Demon Dance. Wives supply the explanatory narrative for why their husbands have checked out… they just don’t seem to care.
Stonewalling by husbands results in an escalating conflict, relentless criticism, more frequent and hotter arguments, and a cascade of contempt which research tells us is one of the most reliable predictors of divorce…especially when wives do the stonewalling.Gottman calls stonewalling one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.
The physiology of stonewalling
Shirley believes that Joe became a stone wall because he doesn’t care about the argument. The reality is quite the opposite.
Joe cares too much. He needs to calm down, but he looks bored and disinterested. Joe is in the throes of acute physiological changes that will make him profoundly reluctant to directly engage.
His body is highly sensitized to the danger he perceives, and his increasing levels of stress are triggering profound physiological changes.
Joe’s aroused autonomic nervous system can’t tell the difference between Shirley or a saber-toothed tiger. The more Shirley yells, the more dangerous she appears to his nervous system.If Shirley decides to escalate her raised voice to yelling, and starts to hammer him with criticism, Joe’s body will switch involuntarily into a “flooded” state of autonomic nervous system (ANS) arousal, more commonly known more completely in couples therapy parlance as the fight-flight-fawn/flee response.
The four styles of stonewalling in a relationship
When I am helping couples to have more effective conversations, fights even, I walk them through the difference between harsh startups and softened start ups. This is important because men under stress can slide into stonewalling with ease.
Some men stonewall their wives with pre-emptive flight. Extended physical absence is a toxic behavior that will make Shirley more convinced of Joe’s disengagement.
Joe’s man-cave, and the iconic “corner bar” are examples of this.
Because Joe expects harsh start-ups, he hides at home in his man-cave, or avoids coming home promptly.
The problem is, if Joe preemptively flees…how can Shirley even start a conversation? The more she has to chase him, the more annoyed she's going to get.
Joe could just retreat into his mind; the walking dead, impassive, expressionless. He crosses his arms. He looks to the side. He gives no indication that he’s even listening. This is the classic “in the room” stonewalling that drives Shirley crazy.
Joe has a responsibility to either bestow attention on Shirley, or explain why he can’t. Healthy conflict, protests, and do-overs would be preferable to Joe icing Shirley out, which he does far too often.
The third style of stonewalling I call the fawn response. This is a retreat into passive-aggression with insincere placating, rationalization, verbal defensiveness, and whiny, half-hearted counter-attacks.
Shirley deserves to be able to count on Joe to hold up his end of a difficult conversation… and Joe deserves a softened startup. Just as a reminder, a softened start up sounds like this:
Hey Joe.. I want to talk about something I‘ll need your help with. I’m waving white flags here. I’m not looking for a fight, I actually need your help. Please listen.
I feel (insert emotion here) about ( What would a camera see?... Describe a concrete situation) and what I want instead is ( insert your preferred outcome). That would make me happy. What do you think?
The way a conversation begins is also the way it ends… 94% of the time. Consider the value of using a softened startup.
Some men will shift from the “in the room” stonewalling, and then abruptly leave the room without explanation. Instead of fawning… they flee.
A sudden destructive shift into mirroring the intensity of their wives is also a possibility for some men. But this is no longer stonewalling. It is now an explosive argument.
Teaching wives about stonewalling
Shirley is afraid that Joe’s Stonewalling is a sign that he has decided to ignore her. But Shirley’s story is based on how Joe appears. It’s her interpretation of Joe that is persuading her of his deliberate disengagement.
But what’s actually happening?
Joe’s reaction begins in his amygdala, which triggers a neural response in his hypothalamus.
Then Joe’s pituitary gland is then activated and begins secreting the hormone ACTH.
Joe’s adrenal glands are activated almost simultaneously and release the hormone epinephrine. The release of chemical messengers results in the production of the hormone cortisol, which increases Joe’s blood sugar and blood pressure while it suppresses his immune system.
Joe’s body is doing its best to provide the necessary resources to create a boost of energy. This boost of energy is activated by the epinephrine binding to Joe’s liver cells and the subsequent production of glucose.
Additionally, the circulation of cortisol functions to turn Joe’s fatty acids into available energy, which prepares muscles throughout his body for response. Catecholamine hormones, such as adrenaline (epinephrine) or noradrenaline (norepinephrine), prepare Joe for possible immediate physical reactions associated with a preparation for violent muscle action.
Joe’s blood flows to his core, and he loses about 30 IQ points as a result of this toxic chemical soup which is preparing him for a fight to the death or to flee for his life.
Meanwhile Shirley’s story is… “What an insensitive meathead..he could care less.”
Neither Joe or Shirley have any idea of the role evolutionary biology is playing in Joe’s reaction to Shirleys’ raised voice.
Her feelings are hurt, Joe looks bored and disinterested. This aggravates Shirley, so she escalates and engages in a “protest Polka.” The more this conflict escalates, the more intense and out of control the conflict may become.
How to handle stonewalling
The antidote to stonewalling is for Joe and Shirley to understand that they can fight about who’s putting away the laundry, but they can’t fight evolutionary biology.
As I mentioned earlier, stonewalling is a predominantly male behavior. Gottman reports that 85% of all stonewalling is done by men. Both spouses can help manage Stonewalling with greater skill.
Here are 7 important powerful and effective ways to stop stonewalling:
For the stonewalled partner:
Use a softened start-up. Remember that the way a conversation begins, is also how it ends over 90% of the time.
Make “I statements” about how you feel that are grounded in facts, not opinions.
Describe what you want with clarity and ask for help in getting it. Plant your feet. Tell him what you want instead.
For the stonewaller:
Notice what is happening in your body. Where are you holding tension? And how are you holding up? Are there reliable “tells” that suggest you might be starting to feel overwhelmed?
Have you started to think more, but say less for fear of making the situation worse? Remember that your saying nothing reliably always makes this situation worse. Entering into a bubble of silence is the threshold of Stonewalling.
Notice your frustration, and accept that it is ok. If you feel criticized, ask for a do-over.
Make eye contact and ask for what you need. Be simple and direct. “I’m getting overwhelmed, Shirley. I need a time out. I will be back in 20 minutes.”
Listen the way a friend would listen. Hear her out. Ask yourself ”What is factually true here? Is there anything I can agree with? How can I validate her concerns while keeping the conversation respectful and regulated?”
Now you know that Stonewalling is destructive to your marriage…do something about it. Your partner is not in charge of your emotional regulation…you are.
If Joe is feeling overwhelmed, his best move is to tell Shirley “I’m getting flooded.” Shirley’s best move is to back off and let Joe self-soothe, and then re-engage in half an hour or so.
What Joe needs to do during his 20-minute timeout:
- Engage in deep breathing.
- Tense and relax his muscles.
- Imagine his tense muscles to be heavy and warm.
- Close his eyes and imagine a calm and relaxed scene that would produce a relaxation response.
- Once he calms down, Joe could reflect on the likelihood that Shirley’s escalation probably did not take place in a vacuum. Joe could ask himself…”How did I make things worse?”
Joe may need to take a break from Shirley and come back in twenty minutes or so. In order for Joe to stay emotionally connected to Shirley, he’s going to need to calm down his autonomic nervous system.
The importance of “admitting mode”
Once returns, he might benefit by entering into what Gottman calls “Admitting Mode.” It would sound something like this:
“Hey Shirley, I realize that I haven’t paid enough attention to you on this issue. I get why you’re upset. I’m sorry. I do want to talk to you about it. I get defensive sometimes, and then it’s hard for me to hear you. Can we try to talk about it again, but maybe tone down the heat a bit?”
Failure to understand the science of Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA) is perhaps one of the single greatest sources of preventable marital fighting.
Dual responsibilities with stonewalling in relationships
Joe has a responsibility to take the time he needs to calm down and re-engage with Shirley.
He could also probably benefit by admitting that his tendency to stonewall plays a decisive role in Shirley’s escalation, and commit to a new, more responsible course of action.
Shirley has a responsibility to allow Joe the space to calm down. She also would benefit by regulating herself, lowering her voice, and de-escalating.
Yelling doesn’t work; never has, never will.
A twenty-minute break will allow both of them to come back together to hopefully have a more productive conversation.
If you want your partner to stay connected to you, understand that stonewalling is a reflex behavior which seeks to regulate arousal when overwhelm sets in.
Stonewalling is not necessarily a sign of your husband’s calculated boredom or deliberate disinterest. It is, however, indicative of his in-the-moment reluctance to engage on the presenting problem. This is because he may need to take a 20-30 minute break.
Stonewalling is a physiologically reflex which can prevent couples from having important conversations. You’ll need good, science-based couples therapy to break the Stonewalling habit. We can help with that.
Have you been stonewalling your wife lately? She deserves better from you.
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