This concept comes from Dr. John Gottman, who identified common features that are likely to lead to separation or dissolution for couple relationships. One of the elements he suggests as being especially damaging to a relationship is stonewalling.
What is stonewalling?
It’s when a partner withdraws from a discussion or argument. Withdrawing can take many forms. Maybe you change the subject when your partner tries to bring up a difficult topic. Or you get upset at your partner and decide to give him/her the silent treatment, creating a cold, distancing silence between you. You may even end up physically removing yourself from your partner’s presence, leaving the room or the house to avoid the conflict and escape the tension.
What unspoken messages does stonewalling send?
When you stonewall, you send negative messages to your partner, even though you may not intend to. When you pull away from the conversation or argument, your partner might feel ignored or unimportant. Thus, your partner is left wondering if you care about him or her. They might also start to feel hopeless about being able to resolve difficult issues with you, wondering what else they can do to resolve issues without driving you away.
What causes stonewalling?
Often, those who stonewall feel overwhelmed by conflict and they either shut down or remove themselves from it in order to escape feeling overwhelmed. The stonewaller may feel that they are going into fight or flight mode. Stonewalling is emotional flight. It is typically done in an attempt to avoid conflict. Perhaps you feel like you are trying to avoid getting in a damaging fight. Maybe it is an attempt to keep the peace in your relationship. In reality, it is damaging your relationship because issues remained unaddressed and unresolved and it creates emotional distance.
How can you avoid it?
It may seem simple, but letting your partner know how you’re feeling can be a key way to avoid stonewalling. Maybe you say something like, “This subject is really hard for me to talk about because I’m afraid we’re going to get into a fight” or “I am feeling overwhelmed right now and am wanting to pull away, can you help me so that doesn’t happen?” You could tell your partner about what is going on for you physiologically and that you are trying to fight the urge to emotionally flee because you want him/her to know how much you care. By saying something, rather than withdrawing, you let your partner know that you are trying and that he/she matters to you. Even if you feel like it’s not the “right” response, a relevant reply offers your partner reassurance and let’s him/her know how much you care.
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Written by: Steph