Communication Killers: Stonewalling


Stonewalling – The 4th Horseman

stone·wall /ˈstōnˌwôl/
  1. 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”

Stonewalling in Relationships

Stonewalling is a harmful behavior that can damage communication and relationships. It is characterized by a refusal or inability to participate in conflict discussions and can manifest as closed body language, a blank stare, or a look of contempt or annoyance. Stonewalling can be the result of the individual being overwhelmed by emotions such as anger, fear, or confusion, which causes a short circuit in the brain’s physiological response. This response is called Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA) and is a result of the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system being activated.

What to Do About It: Take a Break and Engage in Self-Soothing

If you or your partner is stonewalling during a conflict discussion, it is important to take a break. This break should be at least 20 minutes and no more than 24 hours. When calling for a break, it is crucial to do so in a neutral and non-critical manner. Using a buzzword or physical gesture can be effective in diffusing the tension. During the break, engage in self-soothing activities that slow down your heart rate and help you relax, such as breathing exercises, meditation, gardening, playing music, taking a warm bath or shower, or engaging in hobbies and interests. Avoid focusing on what you or your partner said during the conflict, and instead, focus on calming your emotions and thoughts.

Making a Repair Attempt

After the break, it is important to make a repair attempt by communicating your accountability, understanding, and desire for things to be better. This can be done by saying something like, “Hey, I’m sorry this got heated. Can we talk about it calmly now?” or “I understand how you feel, and I want to work on this together.” Making a repair attempt can help neutralize the harmful effects of stonewalling and create a safe and productive space for communication.

Overcoming Stonewalling

Stonewalling is a communication killer, but with the right tools and techniques, it can be overcome. By taking a break, engaging in self-soothing activities, and making a repair attempt, you can create a safe and productive space for communication and work towards resolving conflicts in your relationship. Remember, communication is key to a healthy and fulfilling relationship, and overcoming stonewalling is a crucial step toward achieving that.

How to Take a Break During a Conflict

When tensions run high during a conflict, it’s important to take a break to allow both parties to cool off and gather their thoughts. It’s best to request a break in a non-accusatory and non-critical manner, but if the situation is toxic, it’s important to honor the request and address repair efforts later. Many couples find it helpful to use a neutral buzzword or physical gesture, such as “Marshmallow” or tugging on an earlobe, to indicate the need for a break. This can help diffuse the tension and create a more positive atmosphere.

To ensure that both parties are on the same page, it’s important to be specific about the length of the break. A break should be at least 20 minutes but no more than 24 hours. It’s important to communicate how long the break will be before walking away to avoid leaving the other person wondering when the issue will be addressed again. This can prevent one person from following the other around and trying to continue the conversation, which can lead to both parties becoming flooded.

Self-Soothing Techniques

Stonewalling during a conflict can often be a result of a flooded nervous system. To prevent this, it’s important to engage in self-soothing activities that help slow down your heart rate and provide a sense of calm. Activities such as breathing exercises, meditation, gardening, playing music, taking a warm bath or shower, or engaging in hobbies and interests can be helpful. During a break, it’s important to focus on self-care and not on planning your rebuttal or dwelling on what your partner has said. Taking a break can help both parties approach the conflict with a clear and calm mindset.

*Updated July 10, 2023

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 from 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.

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