Last year, I was interviewed by Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S., an Associate Editor at PsychCentral in order to help provide information for her article on couples and stonewalling. In my previous post, I shared the link to the published article in which you can see quotes from our interview. However, I thought I’d share the full interview for those that might be interested in a deeper look at my thoughts about stonewalling, how it impacts relationships, and what to do when it occurs.
1) How do you define stonewalling?
Stonewalling is when an individual emotionally and/or physically withdrawals from an interaction with their partner due to feeling psychologically or physiologically overwhelmed (i.e. hurt, angry, frustrated, self-protective, etc.).
2) What are examples of stonewalling?
Rather than staying connected with their partner and addressing any personal or couple issues that are present, someone who is stonewalling may remain unresponsive to any attempts made by their partner or therapist to reengage. They emotionally shut down and resist discussing triggering emotions or topics as they struggle to tolerate discomfort. In addition, they may physically turn away, cease eye contact, cross their arms, or even leave the room. Typically, stonewalling can be described as an uncomfortable and hurtful silence.
3) Why is stonewalling so damaging to relationships?
The person who chooses to stonewall is no longer participating in self-reflection and subsequently personal growth. By doing so, they are no longer contributing to the health and well-being of their relationship as they have become a hindrance to moving forward. In addition, the partner that wishes to remain engaged and continue working on their dynamic may often become angry, frustrated, and resentful as their efforts are ignored. The partner may begin to feel disrespected, undervalued, and even begin to question if this is the type of behavior they are willing to tolerate in a loved one.
4) How can people stop stonewalling (in themselves)?
Self-soothe. 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. Often times, couples will look to one another to fix or soothe their emotions and make the situation better. However, it is our responsibility to do our own emotional work and behave with integrity in all our affairs. Therefore, if someone wants to have a deeper, more intimate relationship, they need to behave in ways that honor that desire. This means soothing your heart long enough to be honest and clear with yourself (as well as your partner) about what is coming up for you. You need to settle yourself so you can be be responsive, not reactive.
5) How might readers prevent their partners from stonewalling (for instance, they might communicate more compassionately or not yell or lose their temper, etc)?
It is not your responsibility to prevent your partner from stonewalling nor do you have that ability. Although speaking to your loved one more compassionately may be the kind thing to do and make you feel good about your behavior, your partner has the choice to respond in any way he/she chooses. To believe that you have the power to make your partner behave in particular manner if you simply express something the ‘right way’ is dangerous. It can result in taking on more responsibility than is yours for the well-being of your relationship and can often leave you feeling angry or not good enough when they choose to shut down despite your loving approach. What you can do is take care of yourself. When you recognize that your partner is stonewalling, you can choose to loving detach and not enable or perpetuate an unhealthy dynamic. When you persist in getting your partner to engage when they are clearly don’t want to, you are teaching them that it is okay to behave in such a manner as you will tolerate it and try enough for the both of you. There is no motivation for them to change or do their emotional work when you are doing it for them. However, when a partner is in a healthy emotional state, they typically do not tolerate the intolerable . Therefore, detaching 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.
6) Anything else you’d like readers to know about stonewalling?
Learning to self-sooth, detach, or set healthy boundaries can be challenging. Therefore, individual therapy in conjunction with couples work can be helpful in providing the necessary awareness, insight, and tools to help foster more adaptive ways of both expressing self and responding to your partner.