The silent treatment. The cold shoulder. Stonewalling. Regardless of what you choose to call it, ignoring ― or being evasive toward your partner during an argument ― is a huge communication sin in a relationship.
Stonewalling may seem like an easy way out of an argument, but do it enough and it’s bound to cause problems. In fact, according to renowned researcher John Gottman, routine stonewalling is one of the biggest predictors of divorce.
For 40 years, the psychology professor and his team at the Gottman Institute have studied couples’ interactions to determine the key predictors of divorce — or as Gottman calls them, “the four horsemen of the apocalypse.” (A bit dramatic sounding, sure, but we’re talking about your marriage here ― go along with it.)
Surprisingly, the communication mistakes are more mundane than you’d think: contempt, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling ― the term Gottman uses to describe emotionally withdrawing from your partner ― are the four biggies on the list.
When you stonewall, you disengage right when your partner is trying to have an adult conversation with you. Instead of hashing out your issues, you shut down and turn away, leaving your partner feeling overwhelmed, alone and emotionally vexed.
What’s the antidote to stonewalling? Below, marriage therapists share seven tips for stonewallers in relationships.
1. Stick to one topic at a time.
“My clients often say they have to shut down in an argument because they risk being flooded and feeling overwhelmed. It’s a self-protection mechanism. Knowing this, the other partner needs to be conscious of not overwhelming the stonewaller with too much information. I tell couples to stick to one topic at a time. When the stonewaller hears, ‘and another thing...’ it’s usually too much for them to take in. The only way out is retreat. Some people stonewall but then think about the issue later and might want to come back to talk more. That can’t happen if the partner keeps pushing and won’t let it rest. Accept the fact that people who stonewall may need to work through things in smaller bites and avoid discussing every problem in the relationship all at once.” ― Vikki Stark, a psychotherapist and the director of the Sedona Counselling Center of Montreal
2. Be aware of the physical reaction you have before you stonewall.
“If you’re a stonewaller, you usually have an internal physiological reactions (increased heart-rate or rapid breathing, for instance) and an external reaction right before you close up: Maybe you physically turn away from your partner or close your eyes and deeply sigh. These are all signs your partner needs to start paying attention to. Discuss what you do during times of distress so you both can recognize the stonewalling warning signs.” ― Danielle Kepler, a therapist in Chicago, Illinois
3. Give your partner the benefit of the doubt.
“A lot of times, you stonewall because you’re convinced your partner just won’t listen or make any meaningful changes. Instead of continuing to make requests, it’s easier for you to just shut up about it, even if it it eats you up inside. Stop doing that. Give your partner the benefit of the doubt. Maybe you fell in love with them because they were witty and funny or because they were giving or helpful. Let them use their better qualities to turn things around. Tell them things you’d like to see changed. Sure, you might risk nagging but at least you’re giving your partner (and your relationship) a chance.” ― Aaron Anderson, a marriage and family therapist in Denver, Colorado
4. Figure out ways to self-sooth when you start to get emotional.
“Chances are, you’re worked up before you stonewall. Continuing a conversation when your heart rate is up and you’re flooded with emotion is almost certain to be unproductive because not enough oxygen is getting to your brain. Instead of reacting, you can take deep breaths, go for a walk or distract yourself with an activity you find enjoyable. Don’t fume about the conversation and plan what to say next, as this will not help to stop the flooding. It’s OK to take some time away from the fight.” ― Kari Carroll, a couples therapist in Portland, Oregon
5. Make a pact to not argue when you’re both exhausted.
“Our busy schedules make us susceptible to higher levels of stress and anxiety ― and stonewalling. To avoid stonewalling, it’s imperative to be intentional with your partner and set the stage for sharing your feelings. Select a day and time that’s convenient for both of you and find a quiet place where you can have a quality conversation. Before you talk, tell your partner, ‘I want us to be able to share openly. As you listen, I’d love for you to be fully present and to try to understand my perspective.’ Creating a safe space for sharing is a simple way to avoid stonewalling.” ― Deborah Holt, a marriage and family therapist in Dallas, Texas
6. If you’ve felt dismissed when you’ve opened up in the past, tell your partner.
″You will usually stonewall because your past experience together has taught you that your partner won’t listen or do anything constructive with what you have to say. You don’t want things to fall on deaf ears again, so you keep whatever you have to say to yourself. Instead of choking it down next time, just put it out there: Tell your S.O. you’ve felt dismissed in the past and it’s led to resentment. Hopefully, this gives your partner a chance to address the problems.” ― Aaron Anderson
7. If you really don’t have the energy to talk, table the discussion.
“It’s perfectly OK to say, ‘Can we talk about this a little later? I feel overwhelmed.’ That said, don’t sit on it for too long; it’s important that you give your partner a specific time, within the next 24 hours, when you’ll be available to talk about their concerns.” ― Craig Lambert, a marriage counselor in San Diego, California