This article is part of the Why Couples Fight Series

Stonewalling… How it Begins.

Revised 5/3/21

What is Stonewalling in a Relationship?

Stonewalling is a failure to communicate with a spouse during a stressful conversation which is not always intentional. 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.

stonewallingOne of the gendered issues with stonewalling is how the failure to communicate is explained. Fortunately, we have solid research to rely on.

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 husbands are so bored and disengaged that they have decided to intentionally abandon them.

Husbands, on the other hand, report feeling nagged, poked, and prodded to share an emotion-saturated journey into feeling-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 of 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 advise 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 says too much, and activates.

There is a lot of nonsense about stonewalling on the internet.

Some of it bashes men unfairly in a way that validates female readers without accepting the responsibility of actually offering these beleaguered spouses something that might be challenging, but helpful.

 One profoundly unhelpful metaphor paints the husband as a villain who is maliciously turning off their partners’ emotional “oxygen.” Geesh…..

Because the partner on the receiving end feels abandoned…well then, it must be true. By that same logic, when a husband complains about being nagged, I guess that must be true as well?

Just because your nervous system tells you you’re being “nagged” doesn’t make it true, but the danger of holding that resentment can shave years off your life, guys.

And if you feel “abandoned emotionally”, as painful as the fact of that feeling may be…that feeling is not necessarily a fact either.

It’s an interpretation…just like feeling “nagged.”

Is it healthy for a man to Stonewall his Partner?

Stonewalling is often a naturally occurring physiological event that is inherently defensive in nature. When the science behind stonewalling is understood and respected, the problematic aspects can be addressed in a healthy way, and uncomfortable feelings can be managed with skill.

Is Stonewalling a Form of Abuse?

If this dynamic is left intreated, 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. 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.

When wives face a stonewalling husband, their natural inclination is to crank up the volume. But it doesn’t work. So of course, wives crank it up even more.

It’s another case of “The More… The More.” The greater the volume, the taller the wall becomes.

stonewalling

She believes 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.

Once Shirley escalates her yelling, and starts to hammer him with criticism, Joe’s body switches 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

  • Some men stonewall their wives with flight. This is a protest by physical absence. Joe’s man-cave and the corner bar are examples of this. In the service of avoiding harsh start-ups, Joe can either pre-emptively hide at home in his man-cave, or avoid coming home entirely.
  • 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 wives crazy.
  • The third style of stonewalling I call the fawn response. This is a retreat into insincere placating, rationalization, verbal defensiveness, and whiny half-hearted counter-attacks.
  • Some men will shift abruptly 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 yelling and screaming 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

stonewallingThe Stonewalling that Shirley believes is Joe’s decision to ignore her could not be further from the truth.

Shirley’s story has no foundation in reality. But her interpretation of Joe is convincing her of his deliberate disengagement.

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.”

Shirley has no idea that the role evolutionary biology is playing in Joe’s reaction to her yelling.

Her feelings are hurt that he’s just bored and disinterested. This aggravates her… so she yells and engages in a Protest Polka. The more she escalates, the more intense and out of control, her situation with Joe becomes.

How to Handle Stonewalling

The most important 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.

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.

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.
  • 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.”

Joe’s best move is to tell Shirley “I’m getting flooded.” Shirley’s best move is to back off and let Joe self-soothe.

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 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. But I guess defensive sometimes, and 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) on men is perhaps one of the single greatest sources of preventable marital fighting.

stonewallingDual 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 has a decisive role in Shirley’s escalation.

Shirley has a responsibility to allow Joe the space to calm down. She also would benefit be regulating herself, and rein in the yelling.

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 husbands to stay connected to you, understand that stonewalling is a misguided, autonomic, physiologically influenced attempt to regulate his arousal.

It is not always a sign of your husband’s calculated boredom or deliberate disinterest. It is, however, typically related to your escalation, which often flows from his past reluctance to engage on the presenting problem.

Stonewalling is an inept, physiologically constrained attempt to calm things down. But it tends to have the opposite effect because the entire systemic process is so poorly understood. You’ll need good, science-based couples therapy We can help with that.

Have you been stonewalling lately? Learning how to prevent stonewalling is a teachable skill. Check out our experienced team and ask about our couples therapy intensives.

Research:

Ekman P, Friesen WV. Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1971;17:124–129. doi: 10.1037/h0030377. [PubMed] [CrossRef[]

Ekman P, Levenson RW, Friesen WV. Autonomic nervous system activity distinguishes among emotions. Science. 1983;221:1208–1210. doi: 10.1126/science.6612338. [PubMed] [CrossRef[]

Gottman JM, Levenson RW. Assessing the role of emotion in marriage. Behavioral Assessment. 1986;8:31–48. []

Gottman JM, Levenson RW. The social psychophysiology of marriage. In: Noller P, Fitzpatrick MA, editors. Perspectives on marital interaction Monographs in social psychology of language. 1. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters; 1988. pp. 182–200. []

Gottman JM. Unpublished manuscript. Seattle, WA: University of Washington; 1989. The Specific Affect Coding System (SPAFF) []

Gottman JM. Predicting the longitudinal course of marriages. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. 1991;17:3–7. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.1991.tb00856.x. [CrossRef[]

Gottman JM. What predicts divorce? The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum; 1994. []

Gottman JM. What predicts divorce: The measures. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum; 1996. []

Gottman J, Levenson R. The timing of divorce: Predicting when a couple will divorce over a 14-year periodJ Marriage Family. 2000;62:737-45. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2000.00737.x

Haase C, Holley S, Bloch L, et al. Interpersonal emotional behaviors and physical health: a 20-year longitudinal study of long-term married couplesEmotion. 2016;16(7):965-77. doi:10.1037/a00402.

Levenson RW, Gottman JM. Marital interaction: Physiological linkage and affective exchange. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1983;45:587–597. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.45.3.587. [PubMed] [CrossRef[]

Levenson RW, Ekman P, Friesen WV. Voluntary facial action generates emotion-specific autonomic nervous system activity. Psychophysiology. 1990;27:363–384. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.1990.tb02330.x. [PubMed] [CrossRef[]

Levenson RW, Carstensen LL, Gottman JM. Long-term marriage: Age, gender, and satisfaction. Psychology and Aging. 1993;8:301–313. doi: 10.1037/0882-7974.8.2.301. [PubMed] [CrossRef[]

Levenson RW. Autonomic specificity and emotion. In: Davidson RJ, Scherer KR, Goldsmith HH, editors. Handbook of affective sciences. New York: Oxford University Press; 2003. pp. 212–224. []

Levenson RW, Haase CM, Bloch L, Holley S, Seider BJ. Emotion regulation in couples. In: Gross JJ, editor. Handbook of emotion regulation. 2nd. New York, NY: The Guilford Press; 2013. pp. 267–283. []

Want to learn more? This article is part of the Why Couples Fight Series

 

Daniel Dashnaw


Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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