Let’s Talk About Stonewalling – and the Surprising Facts Behind It

For many couples who are having issues, a discussion of their arguments or conflict style offers a useful insight into what actually happens when emotions become heightened – maybe one person escalates, or one person gets aggressive or upset, or shuts down. Often these reactions are simply our learned responses to threat or overwhelm that we have learned growing up – and most of the time they are not helpful at all in helping us to resolve an argument or conflict!

One of the most challenging examples of an unhelpful communication style is stonewalling. Maybe you’ve seen it before – or have been guilty of doing it yourself. Essentially, stonewalling is the practice of shutting down during a conversation or argument – so, giving the silent treatment or refusing to engage in conversation – or even, sometimes, with eye contact or acknowledging the other person.

In terms of responses to threat, we might look at this response as a ‘freeze’ in the ‘fight or flight’ response – essentially, by doing nothing, the person who is stonewalling is still stopping the interaction and regaining some power and control over the situation. Unfortunately, stonewalling is almost always a bad idea, since it can be frightening and upsetting to the other person in the room to suddenly be ignored or not acknowledged. Many people describe stonewalling as a somewhat passive aggressive way of ending a conversation – easy, yes, but also generally unproductive. 

So how might we deal with this, if stonewalling is unfortunately part of our relationship dynamic? Here are some interesting facts and tips that will help you to deal with stonewalling in your relationship, and move towards a better way of resolving issues: 

1. Stonewalling is not always all it seems 

For many people who use stonewalling in an argument, the whole situation has become emotionally overwhelming and has caused them to shut down. What a partner sees on the outside – stony face, silence – is not always representative of what is going on inside that person. Often, we assume the person who is stonewalling is intentionally shutting down to assert control – but for some people, this is the only option in the face of strong emotions or an overwhelming situation.

If your partner stonewalls in arguments, it might be useful asking them (when you’re both calm) what happens for them in these moments. Often understanding that stonewalling is not necessarily all it seems can help us to feel empathy for our partner in the moment – and give us the space to talk to them about ways of managing emotional overwhelm

2. A break can make all the difference!

When we are arguing with our partner, we’re in a state that psychologists call ‘flooded’ – all of the activity in our brain is in the survival parts, and we’re operating on our base emotions of aggression and fear. Often people don’t really remember what they’ve said or heard during an argument – as our brains are not functioning logically or effectively in these moments. 

Understanding that not much gets resolved when emotions are high is useful – especially if your partner is headed towards the emotional overwhelm mentioned in the previous point. Taking a break for 30 minutes to calm down and go for a walk, or have something to eat, allows you to process the situation and regulate your emotions – meaning you’ll both be less likely to tip into emotional overwhelm.

3. Professional Help makes a difference!

One of the most powerful things about relationship counselling and coaching is that a couple becomes educated about communication and conflict – and they learn to deal with issues such as stonewalling in a curious and compassionate way, rather than having the same argument over and over again. Relationship apps such as Relish offer one-on-one coaching with trained Relationship Coaches, as well as a large library of content about communication, conflict styles, trust, intimacy, self-esteem and body image, and mental health and wellbeing

Learning about how to manage the major issues in a relationship means that conflicts will be reduced, and situations that trigger stonewalling will occur less and less. Even better, the person who is shutting down will learn new skills for communicating effectively and managing strong emotions – so they have more effective ways of communicating

Stonewalling is one of the hardest things to manage in a relationship – and if you’re feeling overwhelmed because of it, you are not alone. It is really important to remember that this is something that occurs in many relationships and can be managed well with some professional support and self-awareness. Try Relish now for a 7 day free trial and speak to a Relationship Coach today for some support.