Man walking toward his stonewalling spouse in an effort to repair the rift in their relationship.

How To Eliminate Stonewalling In A Relationship

Stonewalling, a silent barrier to conversation, can stealthily infiltrate our most valued relationships, leading to feelings of isolation and misunderstanding. This defensive mechanism, while not uncommon, has the potential to significantly erode the trust and intimacy of your connections.

Tackling stonewalling in a relationship goes beyond merely re-establishing communication—it’s about reinforcing a dedication to mutual respect and understanding.

Understanding the roots of stonewalling, recognizing its signs, and learning effective strategies to dismantle this barrier are crucial steps toward fostering a relationship characterized by openness and deep emotional intimacy.

What is stonewalling?

At its core, stonewalling is when one partner completely withdraws from an interaction, shutting down dialogue and creating a barrier to meaningful communication. This behavior might manifest as refusing to talk, making minimal responses, or any action that signals a reluctance or refusal to engage in the conversation. It’s a form of emotional shutdown that can leave the other partner feeling frustrated, unheard, and alone.

Stonewalling isn’t always intentional. Sometimes, it’s a response to feeling overwhelmed or incapable of dealing with the situation at hand.

Recognizing the signs of stonewalling is the first step toward addressing it. These can include changes in body language, such as avoiding eye contact, or the presence of passive-aggressive behaviors. Understanding that stonewalling is often a defensive mechanism rather than a means to manipulate or control can help in approaching the issue with empathy and patience.

John Gottman has identified stonewalling as one of the four critical behaviors, aka the “Four Horsemen,” that predict relationship difficulties. His research emphasizes the importance of recognizing the signs early and addressing the underlying emotional distress to prevent stonewalling from damaging the relationship further.

Causes of Stonewalling

Understanding why stonewalling occurs in a relationship is essential for addressing and preventing it. Often rooted in a partner’s feelings of being overwhelmed or criticized or, in extreme cases, emotionally or verbally abused, stonewalling can emerge as a protective response to avoid conflict or emotional discomfort. It might be triggered by unresolved issues within the relationship. Issues such as trust breaches or communication breakdowns, can lead one partner to shut down as a means of self-preservation.

Recognizing these underlying causes is a pivotal step in the process of healing and improving communication. By identifying the triggers that lead to stonewalling, couples can work toward creating a safer emotional environment where both partners feel understood and valued. And this can lay the groundwork necessary for more constructive interactions.

Impact on Relationships

Stonewalling is much more than a period of silence. It’s about creating a barrier – a barrier that helps the person doing it feel safer. Unfortunately, “safer” for the individual can be destructive to the relationship.

John Gottman’s research highlights how this behavior can deeply affect our connections, turning potential moments of understanding into distances of disconnection. When we choose silence instead of sharing, we’re not just avoiding a conversation but distancing our hearts.

Each instance of stonewalling can chip away at the foundation of trust and intimacy that relationships require. It’s not just about the words left unsaid. It’s also about the shared moments and emotional closeness that are lost in the silence. This withdrawal affects not just the one who stonewalls but deeply wounds the partner left in the quiet. And when it persists, the stonewallee can experience feelings of isolation and neglect.

Strategies to Overcome Stonewalling

Navigating the silent battleground of stonewalling in your relationship means addressing the roles you each play – whether as the one building the wall or the one standing on the other side, feeling shut out.

This dynamic, often rooted in a cycle of emotional overwhelm and response, requires a concerted effort to understand and mitigate. It’s not just about breaking down the barriers erected by the stonewaller but also about fostering an environment where the stonewallee feels heard and valued.

Together, by embracing strategies grounded in empathy and clear communication, both of you can work toward dissolving the walls of silence that divide them, creating a stronger, more connected relationship.

  1. Self-awareness and Emotional Regulation

    The stonewaller is the owner of this strategy. They need to become more aware of when they are beginning to shut down and why. Techniques such as deep breathing, taking a time-out, and mindfulness can help manage emotional flooding, a concept Gottman identifies as a precursor to stonewalling.
  2. Open Dialogue

    You each of a role to play in fostering a safe environment for open communication. This involves setting aside dedicated time to talk, actively listening without judgment, and expressing thoughts and feelings in a non-confrontational manner.
  3. Building Emotional Connection

    Engage in activities that strengthen the relationship outside of discussions that could cause conflict. You might consider shared hobbies, date nights, and expressions of appreciation, all of which can help counteract the negative effects of stonewalling.
  4. Use of “I” Statements

    Both of you can benefit from learning the skill of expressing needs and feelings with “I” statements. “I” statements can help you to avoid placing blame and making your partner defensive.

By integrating these strategies, you can start to dismantle the barriers stonewalling has built in your relationship. You will also begin paving the way for a renewed connection and improved communication.

Leveraging Outside Support

Addressing stonewalling in relationships often requires more than just the will to communicate better. Sometimes, external support in the form of couples therapy, relationship coaching, or participating in private retreats can provide the breakthrough needed. This is especially true if the professionals are familiar with Gottman’s methods.

Couples therapy is a traditional yet powerful approach. Couples therapy offers a safe space for both partners to explore the roots of stonewalling under the guidance of a trained therapist. It’s a place to learn and practice new communication skills, understand each other’s perspectives, and heal emotional wounds.

Sometimes, a more focused and goal-oriented approach is needed. Relationship coaches work with couples to create actionable plans for improving communication, resolving conflicts, and enhancing emotional connection. They do this by providing tools that are immediately applicable.

For those seeking an immersive experience, private retreats offer intensive couple’s counseling in a peaceful, secluded setting. These retreats combine therapy sessions with activities designed to reconnect couples. They offer a unique opportunity to address stonewalling away from the distractions of daily life.

By exploring these options, couples can find the support that best fits their needs. And take a significant step toward dismantling the barriers stonewalling has created in their relationship.

It’s important to recognize that overcoming stonewalling is actually a journey toward deeper understanding and connection within your relationship. By recognizing the signs, understanding the causes, and actively employing strategies to foster open communication, you can rebuild the trust and intimacy that may have been eroded by stonewalling. A healthier, more connected relationship is possible. Building a better relationship will require a commitment to encouraging each other to maintain and build upon any progress made. And, most of all, remaining committed to nurturing a dynamic of openness and empathy.

Mary Ellen Goggin offers relationship coaching for individuals and collaborates with her partner Dr. Jerry Duberstein to offer private couples retreats. To learn more about working with Mary Ellen, contact her here.

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Mary Ellen Goggin

Mary Ellen is a highly skilled and intuitive relationship guide. She brings over 35 years’ experience with individuals and businesses as a lawyer, mediator, personal coach and educator. She received her J.D. at University of New Hampshire Law School and a Master’s Degree at Harvard University. Mary Ellen co-authored Relationship Transformation: How to Have Your Cake and Eat It Too with Jerry Duberstein — and they were married by chapter 3. Mary Ellen brings a unique blend of problem-solving, practicality, and warmth to her work. She’s a highly analytic person, with geeky and monkish tendencies. She’s a daredevil skydiver, a voracious seeker of knowledge, and an indulgent grandmother. Her revolution: helping people become the unapologetic rulers of their inner + outer realms. Read more about the retreats