Help! Someone Told Me I’m a Stonewaller

Does your partner accuse you of being a stonewaller?

Are you confused because you care deeply about your partner’s feelings and would never intentionally do anything to hurt them?

You want to listen and validate their feelings but are not always sure what to do or say. Maybe you freeze and feel like a deer in headlights.

Stonewalling is a harsh word, generally defined simply as “a refusal to communicate or cooperate.” It’s a scary accusation, especially when thrown around freely as one of the four leading predictors of divorce.

The truth is, stonewalling is dramatically misunderstood. We need to find a better word to describe this experience:

Someone feels internally overwhelmed with emotion, physiologically flooded, and doesn’t know what to say out loud. They go silent instead. This causes their partner to get MORE upset. Then everyone gets more upset and doubles down on their coping strategy: The silence becomes more unbearable to the one knocking on the door to get in, which causes the knocker to knock harder and louder which causes the silent partner to feel even more panicked.

This is What a Fight Flight or Freeze Response Looks Like in a Relationship

When you’re in it, you don’t realize you’re in a classic self-protection mechanism because you don’t have access to your frontal cortex at the time.

So if you’re the one who tends toward the freeze reaction to danger, you may have been called a stonewaller. You are the opossum playing dead, not because you’re manipulative, but because it’s your body’s response to a perceived life and death situation.

How to Stop This Vicious Cycle

Thanks to Dr. John Gottman’s extensive research on marital stability, we know three crucial things about stonewalling:

1. It is one of the four destructive communications which can lead to separation if not remediated

2. It is not a stubborn, deliberate act. Stonewalling happens when the human body is in a fight, flight or freeze response to perceived danger. Someone who is stonewalling has a heart rate well over 100 BPM, their breathing is strained, and they feel mentally paralyzed.

3. Stonewalling is destructive, but thankfully it is also predictable and avoidable.

Here is a list of signs to be aware of taken directly from Love Is an Action Verb (Silverstein, 2022).

• Heart rate is beginning to rise

• Holding your breath, or taking light, irregular breaths

• Not listening as well as you normally do

• Getting confused and having trouble finding words.

• Voice tone gets louder and edgier

• You feel defensive instead of open to what’s being said

• Tense muscles

• Feeling like “a deer in headlights”

• Fists clenched

• Teeth grinding

• Facial muscles constricted, especially jaw and/or brow

• Tight shoulders 

• Nausea

• Light-headedness

Advice for how to prevent and defeat stonewalling behavior:

1. Pay attention to your body. Notice if your heart rate is beginning to rise or your muscles are getting tense.

2. Find a way to diplomatically exit the situation. Let your partner know the conversation is important, but you need a quick break so you can respond thoughtfully and respectfully. Excuse yourself to self-soothe. You might want to take a shower, a brisk walk outside, or watch a mindless youtube video. (Don’t obsesses about the fight or plan your counter-attack. This will definitely make things worse!)

3. Return to the situation. If you never come back, your partner will think you were avoiding them, and they might feel disrespected, hurt or angry. If you come back after you have caught your breath, you’ll now be able to engage actively in a productive manner. Twenty minutes is usually the sweet spot for the amount of time it takes to self-soothe and then re-engage. The earlier you catch it, the shorter the break will be.

For more information on this topic, check out Love Is an Action Verb.

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