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Stonewalling — another relationship poison

When couples contact me, they sometimes say that they need help with their communication. When I meet with them, I often notice that they do an amazing job communicating with me,  colleagues or friends. 

But when it comes to this very important relationship with their love partner — some of these skills  seem to evade them and slip away. Why is that?

In this post I will try to shed some light on an important way couples disconnect from each other and end up stuck: Stonewalling.

Bill, for example, works in management, he motivates his team and communicates with them several times a day. But as Susie approached him today during our session, he felt his chest tighten and his breathing became shallow. 

Once Susie started talking about the ways he’d hurt her feelings, he looked down and away. He looked as if he didn’t care.

When I asked him to tell me what was going on inside,  he said he couldn’t really explain but that he felt like running away.

On the outside Bill looked frozen and uncaring, but on the inside he was struggling. He couldn’t sort out his feelings or describe them. 

When Susie is upset with him, the world seems to stop, and he stonewalls.

So how do we understand this change in communication skills and abilities?

We know people are really listening when they maintain eye contact, nod their heads, or say something like, “I see,” or “I hear you.” The basic message is, “I am listening, I am tracking, I am taking in the information.”

When we analyze videotapes of couples in conflict, however, we notice that one person seems to have arms folded, is looking away and down, is not showing any facial expressions. He or she looks like a stone wall and has exited the conversation. 

That, of course, makes it very hard and frustrating for the partner who is trying to connect.

Research done by psychologist John Gottman has shown that among heterosexual couples having communication problems,  85 percent of the men are stonewallers.

Does this mean that stonewalling is a male characteristic then? Is it biology? No. Gottman studied same sex couples as well,  and he found that lesbians stonewall, too.  

So stonewalling is not about biology but a role that partners take on in their relationship. And while they are in that defensive, panicky position, their heart rate is elevated, their blood is pumping, they are sweating. And they are having this internal dialogue:

  • “Just do not say anything about it…it will make it worse.”
  • “This women has the memory of an elephant. She forgets nothing.”
  • “Soon I can say I need to go to my hair appointment; she can’t touch me then””
  • “There is no way to win this.”

When we perceive danger, our body gets ready to fight or flee.  And that makes sense when there is real danger. But when we are talking about finances, or why we forgot to stop at the cleaners, or why we said that thing that came across as hurtful or mean, that impulse to shut down, the need to run, gets in the way of connecting effectively.

So how do we stop stonewalling?

  • Rather than avoiding the issue by tuning out and turning away, make a commitment to slow down and listen. 
  • Admit what you’re doing. Name it. Tell your partner, “I know I am not with you right now; I know I am wanting to shut you out right now.”
  • Acknowledge that it is a frustrating for her right now; she knows she can’t really reach you.
  • Interrupt the internal dialogue of self-righteousness, “I don’t have to take this,” “I can’t believe she treats me like that,” “If only she stops this bickering we will be fine.”
  • Practice physiological self-soothing, such as deep slow rhythmic breathing, listening to soothing music, going on a walk.

Next blog I will write in more length about self-soothing.

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