Does your partner accuse you of stonewalling?
Are you confused because you care deeply about your partner’s feelings and would never intentionally do anything to hurt them?
You want to listen and validate their feelings but are not always sure what to do or say. Maybe you freeze and feel like a deer in headlights.
Stonewalling might sound like a harsh word, generally defined simply as “a refusal to communicate or cooperate.” It’s a scary accusation, especially when thrown around freely as one of the four leading predictors of divorce.
Stonewalling is dramatically misunderstood. It is not the icy indifference it might appear to be on the surface.
The Fight, Flight or Freeze Response in a Relationship
Here is how the cycle often plays out:
Jamie and Carson are having a difficult conversation that begins to escalate.
- Jamie is uncomfortable with conflict and feels internally overwhelmed with emotion while trying to listen to what Carson is saying.
- Carson can tell Jamie is uncomfortable and asks questions like, “What do you think?” “Tell me what you’re feeling.” What’s wrong?”
- Jamie doesn’t know what to say and every answer seems wrong or like it will make things worse. No words come out of Jamie’s mouth.
- The silence becomes unbearable for Carson, who then knocks on Jamie’s metaphorical door harder and louder, begging to be let in.
- Jamie feels even more panic and fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. Jamie becomes paralyzed.
- Carson feels disrespected and alone.
In this example, Jamie and Carson might not realize that they are in a classic fight-flight-or-freeze self-protection mechanism.
Stop the Cycle
So if you’re the one who tends toward the freeze reaction to danger, you may have been called a stonewaller. You are the opossum playing dead, not because you’re manipulative, but because it’s your body’s response to a perceived life and death situation.
Thanks to Dr. John Gottman’s extensive research on marital stability, we know three crucial things about stonewalling:
1. It is one of the four destructive communication habits (Dr. Gottman’s Four Horsemen) which can lead to separation if not remediated
2. It is not a stubborn, deliberate act. Stonewalling happens when the human body is protecting itself from perceived danger. Someone who is actively stonewalling has a heart rate well over 100 BPM, their breathing is strained, and they feel mentally paralyzed.
3. Stonewalling is destructive, but thankfully it is also predictable and avoidable.
Here is a list of warning a variety of signs you can look out for to notice when you are beginning to become flooded. (This list comes directly from Love Is an Action Verb (Silverstein, 2022).
• Heart rate is beginning to rise
• Holding your breath, or taking light, irregular breaths
• Not listening as well as you normally do
• Getting confused and having trouble finding words.
• Voice tone gets louder and edgier
• You feel defensive instead of open to what’s being said
• Tense muscles
• Feeling like “a deer in headlights”
• Fists clenched
• Teeth grinding
• Facial muscles constricted, especially jaw and/or brow
• Tight shoulders
How to minimize stonewalling:
1. Pay attention to your body. Notice if your heart rate is beginning to rise or your muscles are getting tense.
2. Find a way to diplomatically exit the situation. Let your partner know the conversation is important, but you need a quick break so you can respond thoughtfully and respectfully. Excuse yourself to self-soothe. You might want to take a shower, a brisk walk outside, or watch a mindless youtube video. (Don’t use your time-out to obsess about the fight, or plan your counter-attack. This will definitely make things worse!)
3. Return to the situation. If you never come back, your partner will think you were avoiding them, and they might feel disrespected, hurt or angry. If you come back after you have caught your breath, you’ll now be able to engage actively and productively. Twenty minutes is usually the sweet spot for the amount of time it takes to self-soothe and then re-engage. The earlier you catch it, the shorter the break will be.
Remember, stonewalling is only harmful to a relationship when ignored. Instead, you and your partner can work together to better understand your pattern and work to change the way you take care of yourselves and each other during conflict.
If you’d like to learn more about your conflict style, check out this interactive quiz: What’s Your Conflict Style?