How to Deal With Stonewalling (or the “Silent Treatment”) in Your Relationship
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Do you ever get the “silent treatment” in your marriage or romantic relationship?
You know the other person is angry. You can see the anger or even outright hostility. But he or she simply won’t tell you what’s wrong, or even how to solve this issue.
If this sounds familiar, then you’ve experienced a negative communication style that’s commonly known as “stonewalling.”
While stonewalling is often a form of emotional abuse, it usually happens when one partner doesn’t know how to express their anger or disappointment in a healthy manner.
That said, stonewalling can have a long-term negative impact on your relationship.
In this article, we’ll define stonewalling, talk about how it negatively impacts relationships, and then provide three actionable strategies to deal with the silent treatment in your relationships.
What Is Stonewalling?
Stonewalling happens when one person in a relationship absolutely refuses to consider his or her partner’s perspective. When confronted, this person withdraws from interaction and shuts down, becoming completely unresponsive. It’s literally like talking to a wall.
Dr. John Gottman, a psychological researcher and marital expert, was the first to use stonewalling in the context of relationship conflicts. He identifies it as one of the four major predictors of divorce in a married couple (the other three being contempt, criticism, and defensiveness).
Perhaps the most vivid description of stonewalling is from psychologist Jeff Pipe: “(I)t is the emotional equivalent to cutting off someone’s oxygen.”
According to Dr. Gottman, men are more likely to use stonewalling in a relationship compared to women. In fact, 85% of people who stonewall are men. This is understandable, considering brain science has shown us that women's brains are more developed in the areas related to feelings, communication, and interpersonal relating skills, while men's brains are more developed in problem-solving and logical processes.
When someone is stonewalling, they are typically trying to avoid conflict or calm themselves down in the midst of a stressful situation. They may feel like they're unable to cope with their feelings and therefore shut down or withdraw to protect themselves from experiencing discomfort or incompetence.
However, stonewalling is not defined by an absence of verbal communication. Rather, it is defined by emotional disengagement. Because one partner has completely removed himself emotionally from the situation, their body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions stay featureless.
There are different reasons why some partners or spouses use stonewalling in relationships. Regardless of the cause, stonewalling drives the other partner away.
How Stonewalling Will Destroy Your Relationship
1. Makes the other partner feel abandoned or unloved.
If one partner is saying to the other, "Do whatever you want" or "Just leave me alone," then the person who is being stonewalled feels completely helpless and unable to connect with their partner. They feel like they are no longer being respected and their partner doesn't care.
The apathetic statements from someone who is stonewalling their partner are hurtful. Often, when men stonewall women, it is because they feel that the woman is "nagging" them. However, from the woman's perspective, her voice is just not being heard. Emotional detachment and abandonment from a partner leave the victim partner with feelings of doubt, anger, and worry for the viability of their relationship.
2. Lowers feelings of satisfaction in the relationship in both partners.
Studies have shown that stonewalling in a relationship can be particularly dangerous for the future of the relationship. Relationships are built on the ability to work together and come up with mutual solutions to problems, but stonewalling hinders a couple's ability to resolve any issues as a team. Partners who use stonewalling to divert their attention from problems end up creating more problems in the long run.
Because stonewalling prevents couples from being able to resolve conflicts, it can make small disagreements escalate out of control. A victim of stonewalling may react in a desperate manner and say anything they can think of to get the stonewalling to stop. This extreme frustration might also lead to more severe conflicts than the situation originally warranted. This means that it isn't just the stonewalling itself that causes problems, it is also the reactions that happen as a result.
3. Lessens feelings of intimacy.
It is hard to feel intimate toward someone who is pretending like you are not in the room. Couples who use stonewalling usually have issues that build up and snowball into something bigger than its individual parts. Communication between partners becomes stifled, and it is near impossible to have intimacy without communication. Problems have to be resolved, no matter how hard they are to face.
4. Increases risks of depression and anxiety.
Studies have linked stonewalling in marriages to depression, a decreased level of social competence, physical health problems, and reduced academic performance in children who are living in the household. The silent treatment causes partners to have excessive anxiety, fear, and a sense of self-doubt.
Stonewalling clearly damages the marital relationship, and is also harmful to each individual partner physiologically. Those who suppress their emotions by stonewalling and refuse to engage in communication are likely to have health implications with their cardiovascular and autonomic nervous systems. In reaction to a stonewaller, the level of stress a partner feels can lead to the same health problems, as well as anxiety disorders and depression.
5. Increases use and abuse of alcohol and drugs.
People who use ineffective coping mechanisms for their stress such as stonewalling are also likely to abuse substances as a way to cope with the things in their life that they cannot handle.
People may not be taught proper coping skills as a child, and then automatically resort to ineffective methods of coping as adults. As they continue to revert back to their old patterns for dealing with challenges, their life will remain unsatisfying.
6. Higher chance of ending the relationship.
If one partner is persistent with stonewalling, despite the efforts of the other partner to properly communicate, it is possible that the stonewaller is hiding something. This may be an extra-marital affair, a crime, or some other wrongdoing. The withdrawal from the relationship may be an indication that he or she wants out.
If this is not the case, relationships have to be a two-way street, no matter what. If one partner continuously withdraws from the relationship, it will not survive. Stonewalling is often the first sign of a marriage that will be dysfunctional in the long run.
Signs of Stonewalling
While stonewalling may occasionally be used as a defense or coping mechanism in healthy relationships, it has hurtful consequences when it is chronically used as an abuse tactic by toxic partners. Occasionally, partners need to take a cooling-off period or take a break after a heated argument. When this happens, both partners understand that this is what they need, and they are respectful about it.
Stonewalling is different in the sense that it can be callous and have a manipulative intent. Toxic and manipulative partners may use stonewalling as a way to one-up their partners and provoke them to lose control.
As long as the victim feels like he or she needs to “win back” the toxic partner, the stonewaller holds the power to ignore their partner’s needs while the victim continues to try to please them. Here are some signs of stonewalling:
1. Does not respond when addressed, or answers in terse monosyllables.
Instead of completely ignoring their partner, a stonewaller might evade communication by giving them one-word answers to their questions, refusing to look at them when they are talking, giving hazy responses when asked for details, mumbling responses or comments under their breath, or diverting a response by changing the subject.
2. Pretends to be engaged in doing something or continuously moves around, as if too busy to participate in the conversation.
A stonewalling partner will try to make their partner feel disrespected and irrelevant by pretending that everything else around them is more important than whatever their partner is saying. They act like they are too occupied to engage in a conversation.
People may use this method to make a person feel meaningless and brushed off. This devalues the victim and creates a hierarchy of superiority that favors the abuser.
3. Walks out on the speaker when addressed.
This is done to belittle the speaker and demean them into making them feel insignificant. It also makes the speaker feel completely powerless, as they know their words are not being heard.
4. Steers even peaceful conversations to speaker’s alleged faults or shortcomings.
The stonewaller always wants to remind their partner of their faults to try to make them feel as if they are indebted to them in some way and need to earn back their respect. This is a power play to keep the stonewaller's partner down.
5. Refuses to compromise or listen to the other’s view without becoming defensive.
Stonewallers protect themselves through righteous indignation, or act as if they are innocent victims to try to ward off a perceived strike. When the stonewaller is defensive, they are placing blame on the other person by essentially saying, “I'm not the problem, you are.” This results in the problem going unresolved and the conflict escalating further.
The good news is there are things that you can do to change all these negative traits and transform your relationship for the better.
3 Proven Tactics to Deal With Stonewalling in Your Relationships
1. Acknowledge that you are not the “fixer.”
It is important to realize that the problem is not you. If the stonewalling is a chronic problem, you must step away from any self-blame and stop walking on eggshells to try to please your toxic partner who refuses to be satisfied. The only way a toxic person’s communication patterns will change is if that person is willing to change them.
If you are the only one willing to work on the unhealthy relationship, you must realize that self-care is the most important thing. You have to know when it is time to leave the situation and detach from your partner, or else you will end up feeding into their games. Trying to get your partner to open up or behave in a certain manner can be dangerous.
Instead of trying to fix a stonewalling partner and win their attention and approval, you may want to reevaluate if the relationship you have with this person is worth it in the long run. While your partner is stonewalling you, use the distance that they are already giving you to reassess your needs and the possible voids that you have that are not being filled by them.
When you are showing empathy, you are figuratively putting yourself in the other person's situation. This helps you acknowledge the feelings of the other person, and will immediately alert them that you are listening. Showing empathy is an effective way to indicate that you care about the relationship. It lowers defenses and eases negative feelings.
A general rule of physics that everyone is familiar with is that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. While stonewalling is a clear sign of disengagement, empathy is the opposite, and shows engagement, as it is indicative of a caring connection.
Research shows the dramatic change that happens to the brain's structure when you attain a secure bond with your partner. Partners share mirror neurons that allow each other to feel what the other person feels, think like they think, and anticipate their next move.
Showing empathy, or any emotional expression that lets your partner know that you can feel what they feel, establishes this secure bond. While showing empathy might not ease your partner's negative feelings during an acute period of stonewalling, it will deescalate the situation by letting them know that you have a connection with them.
Try to get into your partner's thoughts to figure out what must have been so hurtful for them to react this way. This will help break the negative chain of action-reaction, which is the first step towards breaking down the wall.
When your partner behaves miserably, it is a reflection of how they are and not of who you are. If you are able to depersonalize, you can evaluate your partner's behavior instead of who either of you are as people, which will allow you to release yourself from the need to be defensive.
Separate yourself from the situation by changing how you view the behaviors. For example, instead of thinking that you are being ignored, think of it as a “cool down” period.
Studies have shown that it is impossible to have a rational conversation when one partner's emotions are running high. It is also impossible to have genuine compassion for your partner during these times of intense emotion. Until both partners are calm, you will only hurt each other.
It might be difficult to depersonalize if you are the type of person who prefers to resolve conflicts quickly to lessen your anxiety, so while taking timeouts to allow your partner to calm down may be difficult, it will help resolve the problem in the long run.
Wrapping It Up
To wrap up, we’ve discussed that the term “stonewalling” in relationships refers to one partner’s refusal to cooperate, communicate, or consider the other’s opinions. It has hurtful effects to both partners, and is one of the major predictors of divorce.
Applying the suggestions in this post can help stop the negative effects of stonewalling in your relationship.
If you find yourself in a relationship where you’re having trouble communicating, then I recommend checking out a book that I wrote with Barrie Davenport, called Mindful Relationship Habits. It covers 25 habits you can build in order to improve both the communication and intimacy of your relationships.