Relationship researcher John Gottman, Ph.D, was the first to apply the term “stonewalling” to couples, said Kathy Nickerson, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in relationships in Orange County, Calif.
Gottman defines stonewalling as “when a listener withdraws from an interaction” by getting quiet or shutting down, she said.
“I describe stonewalling to clients as when one person turns into a stone wall, refusing to interact, engage, communicate or participate. Much like what you’d expect from a stone if you were talking to it!”
Partners emotionally or physically withdraw because they’re psychologically or physiologically overwhelmed, said Mary Spease, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in couples therapy in La Jolla, Calif.
They “are typically trying to avoid conflict or escape from conflict; they’re trying to calm themselves down during a stressful situation,” Nickerson said.
For instance, they may refuse to discuss certain topics or feelings, struggling to tolerate the discomfort. They may turn away, stop making eye contact, cross their arms or leave the room because they feel hurt, angry or frustrated, Spease said.
She described stonewalling as “an uncomfortable and hurtful silence.”
Stonewalling is a complex issue. People shut down for myriad reasons. People who have experienced trauma may disconnect from themselves and thereby disconnect from the relationship, said Heather Gaedt, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Palm Desert, Calif., who specializes in couples (particularly with those with eating disorder and addiction issues). Partners might shut down because they’re keeping secrets or feel resentment if it’s a topic they’ve talked about over and over.
Not surprisingly, stonewalling is damaging to relationships. “The person who chooses to stonewall is no longer participating in self-reflection and subsequently personal growth,” Spease said. Rather than contributing to the well-being of the relationship, they impede it from moving forward, she said.
According to Nickerson, “The recipient of stonewalling feels ignored, misunderstood, invalidated, and just plain hurt.” Many people tell her “they feel so unimportant that they don’t even deserve a response.”
In fact, she said, stonewalling is so destructive Gottman found it to be highly predictive of divorce.
So what can you do if you’re stonewalling or your partner is stonewalling? Below you’ll find experts’ insights.
When You Stonewall
Recognize you’re shutting down.
Gaedt stressed the importance of tuning in internally. For instance, she said, you might pay attention to your bodily sensations, which are connected to your emotions. A lump in your throat might mean sadness. Burning in your chest might mean anger. A fluttering in your stomach might mean anxiety. Tuning in helps you figure out what you need and prevents you from doing or saying something you’ll regret.
Communicate how you’re feeling.
Nickerson suggested taking several deep breaths and communicating what you need to stay productive. “If you need a break or reassurance or a timeout until tomorrow, ask for that.”
Gaedt suggested talking to your partner ahead of time about the best way to communicate with them. Because, as she said, this may be different for every couple. One partner might respond to phrases like “I felt this when you said that,” but another partner might not. You might ask: What is the best way for me to talk to you so you hear me?
(Sometimes, no matter how you communicate with your partner, they still might not hear you. But don’t let that stop you from communicating honestly, Gaedt said.)
Learn to soothe yourself.
“It is extremely valuable for anyone to continually practice self-soothing as we are the only ones that have control over our emotional state and behaviors,” Spease said. That is, it’s our responsibility to calm ourselves so we’re able to respond — not react.
Often partners think they should soothe or fix each other’s emotions and make things better, she said, but we must do our own emotional work. This includes being honest and clear with yourself and your partner about what feelings are arising.
Self-soothing is very individualized, Gaedt said. She suggested considering the activities that are genuinely calming for you.
When Your Partner Stonewalls
Recognize it’s not about you.
This is the way your partner has learned to manage their emotions, Gaedt said. In the same way, if you shut down, it isn’t your partner’s fault, she said. Trying to get your partner to open up (i.e., trying to fix or change them) only leads to resentment on both sides.
“To believe that you have the power to make your partner behave in a particular manner if you simply express something the ‘right way’ is dangerous,” Spease said. It often leads to people taking on more responsibility than is theirs in the relationship, she said. This often leaves you “feeling angry or not good enough when they choose to shut down despite your loving approach.”
Talk to your partner about the best way to communicate with them when they’re shutting down, Gaedt said. (You can talk about this in the same conversation as above.) In other words, what’s a helpful way for you to talk to them when they’re starting to withdraw from the conversation?
Detach and set boundaries.
“When you recognize that your partner is stonewalling, you can choose to lovingly detach and not enable or perpetuate an unhealthy dynamic,” Spease said.
When you keep trying to get your partner to engage with you when they don’t want to, you communicate that you’ll tolerate this kind of behavior, and there’s no motivation on their part to change (when you’re doing it for them), she said.
“[D]etaching and setting a clear boundary sends the message that although they have a right to behave as they please, they cannot do so while in connection with you. By removing yourself from the situation, your partner is left with no one to focus on (or blame) but themselves.”
Gaedt shared these examples of boundaries: leaving the house and doing something for yourself; asking your partner to leave because you have a hard time being around them; or telling them you want to attend therapy as a couple in order to stay in the relationship.
In fact, because stonewalling sabotages relationships, seeing a therapist who specializes in couples can be tremendously helpful.