How to Cope When Your Spouse Shuts Down

How Stonewalling Harms a Relationship

shut down spouse
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Intentionally shutting down during an argument, known as stonewalling, can be harmful to a relationship. It is defined as a refusal to communicate or express oneself emotionally, often during a conflict.

People who stonewall may do so to avoid the escalation of a fight or a topic or emotion they find especially uncomfortable. In other cases, stonewalling can be used to manipulate a situation or to inflict punishment.

Stonewalling rarely helps a situation and, if habitual, can reduce a couple's ability to resolve conflict or interact intimately.

Features of Stonewalling

Stonewalling may be an incidental reaction to a situation or a long-standing behavioral feature that defines the relationship. It can be broadly described by the following behaviors:

  • A general discomfort in discussing feelings
  • Dismissing or minimizing a partner’s concerns
  • Refusing to respond to questions
  • Refusing to offer nonverbal communication cues
  • Walking away from discussions you choose not to have

Unlike walking away to cool things off—which can be healthy—stonewalling communicates that you are not willing or comfortable to discuss the matter any further.

Research suggests that men are more likely to stonewall, due in part to societal roles that place women as communicators and dictate that men are "strong and silent." With that being said, either partner in a relationship can stonewall or even take turns stonewalling each other in retaliation.

Causes 

While stonewalling can be hurtful, this should not suggest that the strategy is inherently ill-intended or that the partner doesn't play a part in the behavior.  At its very heart, stonewalling is a behavior borne out of fear and frustration. 

The reasons for stonewalling can be many and may include:

  • A generalized avoidance of conflict (emotional passivity)
  • A desire to reduce tension in an emotionally charged situation
  • A genuine belief that you “cannot handle” a certain topic
  • A fear of your partner’s reaction or where a talk may lead
  • A belief that your partner has no desire in resolving a conflict
  • An underlying hopelessness that a resolution can be found
  • A  means to establish yourself as neutral and your partner as "emotional" or "unreasonable" 
  • A means to manipulate a situation so that you get your way
  • A means of bringing a situation to  a crisis, either to draw larger grievances into the conflict or to end a relationship altogether

Stonewalling is oftentimes a tactic learned during childhood. It may have been a behavior your parents used to "keep the peace" or to gain dominance in the family hierarchy.

Even if the stonewalling appears intentional and aggressive, it is important to remember that is often used by people who feel powerless or have low self-worth. Within this context, stonewalling may a defensive tool used to compensate for these feelings. 

Impact on Relationships

Whatever the underlying cause, stonewalling can cause real damage to a relationship. The partner being stonewalled will often feel demeaned or abused and may even begin to question his or own self-worth.

Moreover, shutting someone out can often escalate the very situation it was meant to avert, either by forcing a confrontation or building frustrations to a point where regrettable things are said.

Some experts have suggested that stonewalling is a key predictor for divorce, signaling an unwillingness to solve problems central to sustaining the relationship. Other studies have shown that the behavior can have a direct physiological impact on both partners.

In fact, a 2016 study from the University of Berkeley, which followed 156 couples over a 15-year period, concluded that stonewalling was independently associated with acute musculoskeletal symptoms such as backaches, neck stiffness, and generalized muscle aches.

By contrast, the stonewalled partner was more likely to experience cardiovascular symptoms such as increased blood pressure, tension headaches, and rapid heart rate. 

Overcoming Stonewalling

If stonewalling occurs within a relationship, it is best to deal with it as a couple. Whether you are the stonewaller or the person being stonewalled, you cannot isolate stonewalling as the problem. Doing so only assigns blame and may end up ignoring the larger issues in the relationship.

Because a relationship is unlikely to succeed without communication and cooperation, you need to start by finding the tools to "reprogram" old communication habits.

This is where couples counseling can help. Couples therapy is designed to help both partners understand why the stonewalling is taking place and identify the behaviors or practices that typically lead to stonewalling.

The couple can then be taught a more structured approach to communications, which may include:

  • Decompressing before approaching a contentious topic
  • Finding a safe space where your partner doesn't feel cornered
  • Using words that establish you are neither criticizing nor accusing your partner
  • Expressing your understanding of the situation and allowing your partner to reply in kind
  • Being aware of your body language as your partner speaks
  • Acknowledging what your partner has just said before launching into a reply
  • Accepting feedback and acknowledging when your understanding was mistaken
  • Mutually agreeing to postpone the conversation if things get contentious and agreeing to return to the conversation when things have settled

While it may take time to get used to these techniques, doing so will eventually become automatic and help you and your partner better resolve situations rather than react to them.

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