delay or block (a request, process, or person) by refusing to answer questions or by giving evasive replies, especially in politics.“the highest level of bureaucracy stonewalled us”
What it looks like in relationships
Stonewalling looks like a refusal or inability to participate in a conflict discussion. When it is a refusal, then a person may have a look of contempt or annoyance while they look away with closed body language (facing away, arms folded, etc.). When they are actually unable to participate, the stonewalling is a result of Flooding (Diffuse Physiological Arousal). This occurs when the brain “short-circuits” due to the person moving into the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system; pulse rate spikes to over 95 and they likely have a blank stare while looking down (and often to the left).
What to do about it: Take a break & Engage in self-soothing
When you are flooded there is often a physiological aspect as well. Because flooding typically occurs when we are overwhelmed with emotions like anger, fear, confusion, etc., we are actively engaged in the Fight-or-Flight sympathetic nervous system. The chemical cocktail of adrenaline, cortisol, and testosterone is extremely powerful and is not designed to be active for very long; when we cannot feel safe from the perceived threat (conflict), neurons literally short-circuit due to what is called Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA). In this state, there is no communication that will work other than calling for a break.
Taking a break
How a break is called for isn’t very important as long as it’s not an accusatory or critical statement. If it is a toxic request for a break, go ahead and honor it though . . .repair efforts can come later. Many couples find using a neutral buzz-word or physical gesture (Marshmellow, or tugging on an earlobe) is very effective . . . sometimes, if it’s almost silly, the gesture or word itself begins to diffuse the tension. In terms of how long the break should be, specificity is the key. The break should be at least 20-minutes and no more than 24-hours and you must specify how long before you walk away. This helps both people not feel like they are hanging in limbo wondering when the issue will be addressed again (this often leads to one person following the other around trying to continue the conversation and eventually winds up with BOTH people flooding).
Since stonewalling is often a result of a flooded nervous system, the main thing to do is self-soothe by engaging in activities that help your heart rate slow down or that you enjoy. Things like a breathing practice or meditation, gardening, playing music, taking a warm bath or shower, etc. Engaging in hobbies and other interests are also great ideas. Just be sure that you are not focusing on what you’re going to say, or on what your partner has said . . . the break is intended for you to get some space so that things can cool off, not to plan your rebuttal.
To learn more about red-flags to look out for and how to fix them, please visit my Couples Counseling page. Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s has worked in the helping profession since he started college in 1990. After completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin in 1994, he attended the highly-regarded University of Minnesota to earn his Master’s degree in 1997. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is recognized as a Board Approved Supervisor by the State of Texas Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors. Jonathan has completed Level-2 of the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling, and in 1998 received training by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Advanced Critical Incident Stress Management & Debriefing. To learn more about Jonathan’s practice, click here: Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s.