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Breaking Down the Silent Wall: Confronting Stonewalling in Relationships


Conflict
Stonewalling is not a mere display of indifference but a physiological response to emotional turmoil.

In the intricate tapestry of relationship dynamics, stonewalling stands as the last but by no means the least formidable of the Four Horsemen.


This term, "stonewalling," paints a vivid picture: during a discussion or argument, one partner withdraws from the interaction, creating an emotional barricade that isolates them from their significant other.


This silent wall is constructed in response to feeling overwhelmed or physiologically flooded, resulting in a communication breakdown and emotional distance.


Understanding Stonewalling


Stonewalling is not a mere display of indifference but a physiological response to emotional turmoil. It reflects a breakdown in communication that occurs when one partner reaches a state of emotional or physiological distress that makes further engagement impossible.


When someone is stonewalling, they are essentially putting up a protective shield, blocking out any further emotional or verbal interaction with their partner.


Instead of engaging in open dialogue, a stonewaller opts for total unresponsiveness, using tactics like tuning out, turning away, feigning busyness, or obsessively engaging in unrelated activities.


It typically takes time for the accumulated negativity from earlier stages of conflict to become overwhelming enough for stonewalling to emerge as a coping mechanism. However, once it takes root, stonewalling can become an entrenched habit, casting a shadow over the relationship.


Attempting to communicate with a stonewalling partner can be a frustrating and, if the behavior persists, infuriating experience. It often leads to heightened frustration or anger, pushing both partners further away from resolving the issue.


The Antidote to Stonewalling


When someone starts stonewalling, it is often an outcome of physiological flooding, which manifests through increased heart rate, the release of stress hormones, and even a fight-or-flight response.


At this point, rational and respectful communication becomes impossible due to heightened physiological agitation. To counter stonewalling, follow these steps:


1. The Stop Signal: To prevent further escalation during a conflict, both partners should agree on a clear and mutually recognized signal that indicates the need for a break. This signal can take various forms, such as a word, a phrase, a physical gesture, or simply raising both hands in a stop position. Using a light-hearted or humorous signal can help de-escalate tension.


2. Take a Breather: When you recognize that you are stonewalling or feeling overwhelmed, use the agreed-upon signal to communicate your need for a break. Honoring this request is essential. Take at least a 20-minute break to allow your physiological responses to calm down.


The Practice of Physiological Self-Soothing


The second step in countering stonewalling is mastering the art of physiological self-soothing. During this time, avoid thoughts of indignation or victimhood. Instead, focus on self-soothing techniques like:


  • Mental Sanctuary: Visualize a place that makes you feel calm and secure. Transport yourself to this serene mental haven, free from external disturbances. This meditation can provide much-needed relief during a difficult conversation.

  • Mindful Breathing: Concentrate on your breath, ensuring it remains deep, regular, and steady. This practice counteracts the tendency to hold one's breath or engage in shallow, rapid breathing during stressful situations.

  • Muscle Relaxation: Tense and relax any tight or uncomfortable muscles, allowing warmth and heaviness to flow out of your limbs. This technique helps alleviate stress.

  • Distracting Activities: Engage in soothing and distracting activities like listening to music, reading a book, or taking a short walk. These activities help divert your attention from the conflict temporarily.

Understanding stonewalling unveils critical insights into relationship dynamics:


  • Maintain a Positive Ratio: Successful relationships thrive on a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions during conflicts. Positive gestures like interest, affection, humor, empathy, and affirming body language counterbalance negativity. This ratio underscores the importance of maintaining positivity even during disagreements, as long as the Four Horsemen aren't present.

  • Cycles of Non-Constructive Arguing: Repeated patterns of non-constructive arguments and a lack of positive interactions are strong predictors of stonewalling. This behavior often arises as a self-soothing attempt but tends to backfire, causing relationship deterioration. Heightened physiological arousal is a consequence of these cycles.

  • Impact of Gender: Men are more prone to stonewalling than women. In most cases, men emotionally withdraw during conflicts while women remain engaged. Surprisingly, when women stonewall, it is often a significant predictor of divorce.


The Role of Physiological Arousal


A deeper dive into stonewalling reveals the profound influence of physiological arousal on relationship dynamics. When stonewalling occurs, both partners experience a series of physiological changes that hinder effective communication and problem-solving:


  • Decreased Information Processing: Physiological arousal leads to reduced hearing, narrowed peripheral vision, and difficulties in shifting attention away from a defensive posture. These effects impede the ability to process information effectively.

  • Increased Defensiveness: Stonewalling triggers a heightened sense of defensiveness in both partners, making it challenging to adopt a collaborative problem-solving approach.

  • Impaired Creativity: When physiological arousal is high, creative problem-solving abilities diminish. This further complicates efforts to find mutually satisfactory solutions.

  • Reduced Empathy and Listening: Arousal interferes with the capacity to empathize and actively listen, creating a barrier to understanding each other's perspectives.


Gender Disparities in Stonewalling


Research by Drs. Gottman and Levenson in a 1985 study called "Physiological and Affective Predictors of Change in Relationship Satisfaction" sheds light on gender disparities in stonewalling. This study found:


  • Male Propensity: Men are consistently more likely to stonewall than women. They tend to withdraw emotionally from conflict discussions, seeking distance and detachment as a self-soothing mechanism.

  • Impact of Male Stonewalling: Male stonewalling often upsets their female partners, leading to increased physiological arousal in women. This heightened distress intensifies their pursuit of the issue, exacerbating the emotional disconnect.


The Crucial Rule: STOP When Stonewalling Starts


In essence, stonewalling is a detrimental behavior in relationships. Remember this crucial rule: when stonewalling begins, it's time to STOP. Continuing the argument escalates tension and emotional distress for both partners. Instead, agree to take a break, honoring each other's need for self-soothing.


Investing in self-care, such as adequate sleep, nutrition, exercise, and pursuing personal passions, can substantially reduce the frequency and intensity of conflicts. The ability to self-soothe is a valuable life skill, beneficial not only in romantic relationships but also in all other aspects of life.


By practicing self-soothing, you equip yourself with a powerful tool for navigating challenging situations and fostering healthier connections with loved ones.


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