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Stonewalling-The Last of the 4 Horsemen

In my opinion, stonewalling is the most misunderstood of the 4 Horsemen. It can also be one of the most difficult patterns to identify and manage in the moment in its more subtle forms. Yet stonewalling is also very prevalent in relationships and so it needs to be understood in order to eliminate its destructive potential. Like the other 4 horsemen, it will escalate the negative interactions in the relationship and lead to very dysfunctional and problematic relationship patterns very quickly. And like all the other horsemen, it prevents effective dialogue and positive interactions which are both critical for navigating differences in a mixed-faith marriage.

What is stonewalling:

Stonewalling is a maneuver to withdraw in some way from an interaction or conversation. It might be as overt as one partner simply not speaking, ignoring, or shutting down while in a difficult conversation as a couple, for example conversations related to navigating a mixed-faith relationship. But it also might be more subtle. Stonewalling can also manifest as distracting with other things like a phone or TV during a difficult conversation, or giving just one word answers as a way to avoid and turn away from the conversation as much as possible. It might manifest by not giving any head nods, or any kind of verbal acknowledgement during conversation which might feel like there is a lack of any form of responsiveness occurring. Stonewalling is what happens when your partner is somehow turning away, tuning out, or being otherwise preoccupied when you are trying to engage in a conversation with them.

Why it is difficult to notice:

One thing that makes stonewalling difficult to deal with is that often it is really hard to catch in the moment that it is happening. If you are in a situation where your partner is stonewalling, your brain likely will register that for some reason your partner just isn’t listening or paying attention when you are trying to talk to them. This naturally and very quickly triggers all kinds of reactions, from trying harder to get them to engage in conversation with you, to angrily fixating on the fact that they aren’t engaging in conversation, to feeling hopeless and withdrawing yourself out of resignation. Stonewalling makes the partner on the receiving end spiral into all kinds of reactions and thoughts long before they can even put 2+2 together and realize “this is stonewalling.”

An example of this is with my teenage son who is 14. Last week during a conversation that was frustrating him, he gave me one word answers and then put his earbuds in while I was trying to talk to him. Immediately I became frustrated and was trying to figure out what I need to do differently to get a teenager to listen, and then I was furious and went into intense mom-lecture mode about being respectful in conversation all while thinking “how dare he do that." I was totally fixated on his behavior. In that moment in reaction to his stonewalling my brain spiraled out in a million different directions. However, it wasn't until days later that I realized that in that moment he was stonewalling. I got stuck in my own strong reactions to it that I couldn’t even see what was happening in front of me. Of course nothing beneficial came out of that conversation because he was stonewalling and I was in major reactive mode.

The danger of stonewalling:

The example with my son illustrates why stonewalling is so dangerous to relationships: it very quickly sends the person on the receiving end into their own fight, flight, freeze or fix mode before they even have time to choose another response. And when those automatic nervous system responses are happening, the parts of our brain that care about anyone other than ourselves, the parts that are able to be curious, empathic, receptive, collaborative, sensitive, adaptive and patient are all offline. When those parts of our brain are offline, we cannot function relationally. In those moments we are only in a mode that cares about ourselves and our own protection. And rarely does anything good EVER come from that in a partnership!

Maybe you have experienced something similar in your mixed-faith marriage when you try to talk about sensitive issues such as: parenting, family values, social issues, church events in the news, sundays, tithing, substances, etc. Conversations that might create tension, complaint, conflict, criticism, defensiveness, vulnerability, anger, frustration or any intense feeling are very conducive to stonewalling. This is due to what is happening in the body in reaction to these feelings.

What is misunderstood about Stonewalling:

What many people don’t understand about stonewalling is that most of the time it is not intentional. While it can be used intentionally to be hurtful, which would put it under the category of emotional abuse, most of the time it is not intentional and it is actually a coping mechanism that our nervous system might use when overwhelmed. It is a subconscious response that falls under the flight category of fight, flight, or freeze. It might not always be a physical act of flight or getting away, but more of an internal effort to wall-off in some form through distraction, evasion, tuning out, or withdrawing in some form as a method of self-protection from the overwhelm.

Dr. Gottman found that stonewalling happens when someone’s heart rate reaches 100 beats per minute during a conversation. Stonewalling is simply an automatic nervous system reaction to the flood of stress hormones entering the body when it goes into fight, flight or freeze mode. These stress hormones also increase heart rate, which is why if someone’s heart rate is 100 beats per minute or more during an interaction with their partner, you know that their stress hormones are already flowing and relational interactions will not happen as a result. Their body has to deal with that flood of chemicals and hormones in their system in some way, and men in particular are very prone to deal with it via stonewalling! Dr. Gottman found that of the people who stonewall, 85% of them are male while the majority of people who use criticism are female.

If you were to meet with a certified Gottman therapist in their office, they might even hook you up to a heart rate monitor so that when you are in the process of having a conversation with your partner they can see what your heart rate is doing. Dr. Gottman found that he could accurately predict that within 10 seconds of someone's heart rate reaching 100 bpm that they would stonewall. Helping people be aware of what is happening in their body is a critical part of learning to eliminate stonewalling.

The Release or Hormones and Chemicals:

There can be a lot of reasons why a body would start releasing stress hormones that lead to stonewalling during conversation. It could be in response to criticism, defensiveness, or contempt, because the brain/body might register any of these as an attack. When I think back to the situation with my son, I was using more critical language which is part of what escalated his nervous system and led to stonewalling. In response to criticism, contempt, or defensiveness, the body then readies itself by flooding it with all the things it needs in preparation to fight or flight, including stress hormones.

It could also be that conflict/tension was a negative part of childhood experience and so the brain is responding to that whenever conflict is detected. There could be past memories related to this topic leading the body to prepare. But the body can also become overwhelmed with discomfort around feelings of vulnerability, anger, sadness, or shame, and inability to articulate feelings. In a culture that historically has not allowed men to be vulnerable, and therefore has not helped boys/men to learn to identify, articulate, express, and process their emotions and vulnerable experiences, it is no wonder that their body becomes overwhelmed with the internal experiences they are having! Any of these might cause the body to flood with the hormones that might lead to the shut down/stonewalling response.

What to do if you are the stonewaller:

Because stonewalling is due to a reaction in the body, the antidote to it is practicing self-soothing in order to get those stress hormones to calm back down. This means that you might need to take a break from the conversation and do things like distract yourself, go for a walk, listen to music, go outside, do deep breathing, or do something you enjoy for a short period of time until you can come back to the conversation when you can be more engaged and receptive. Dr. Gottman’s calls this method stop, drop, and self-soothe.

If you are the stonewaller, just like with all of the 4 horsemen, eliminating the behavior is a matter of increasing awareness of what is happening both within you and between you and your spouse. That requires creating just a little bit of space between stimulus and reaction, which can only come with practice and practice and more practice in order to notice in the moment that your heart is beating fast and that you are trying to evade in some way. Eliminating stonewalling also will come with increased practice of identifying and articulating your inner experience and having an emotionally safe place to do so. It is in your best interest to address your stonewalling so that you can have more effective discussions around navigating your mixed-faith relationship.

What to do if you are on the receiving end of the stonewalling:

If you are on the receiving end of stonewalling, the best thing to do is to realize that your spouse is in some form of fight, flight, or freeze response and they need a break instead of pushing for the conversation to happen. Come back to the conversation later when their body isn’t in such a reactive state! This is not the same as walking on eggshells or enabling conflict avoidance. Instead, it is about being flexible and adaptive to work with the person that you have in front of you. It will always be in your best interest to wait until you can have a receptive partner rather than to try to control, criticize, or lecture in an effort to try to get them to be receptive. Pushing for more engagement will rarely get you what you want, more often it will have the opposite effect. It takes a lot of practice to notice in the moment that stonewalling is happening and trying to manage your own reaction as a result. This takes enormous self-discipline!

As the partner, it is also important to take inventory of whether you did anything that contributed to the overwhelm that led to their stonewalling. Were you doing your part to create emotional safety? Were you creating space for them to identify and articulate their inner experience? Were you allowing space to listen to them? You have to remember that as a couple you are like a see-saw. The action of one person directly impacts what happens to the other because you are connected. Stonewalling may not be a direct result of your behavior and actions and it is not your responsibility to manage their reactivity, however it is important to know your partner well. It could be their own trauma response to what they are interpreting in the moment, however navigating stonewalling requires being sensitive to their history and cleaning up your own side of the street.

If your spouse seems to rarely be able to be in a receptive, engaged state and you can’t have the conversations that you need to in order to manage your differences well, you may need to get some professional help in order to get unstuck. You may need someone to help you understand the different and deeper reasons at the root of the stonewalling and to help all involved learn to do conflict instead of avoiding it.

The Big Picture:

The goal of working with “perpetual problems” such as a mixed-faith marriage, is to have effective dialogue. If there is so much stonewalling happening that you can’t have that dialogue, that will be a huge detriment to your ability to successfully navigate your differences as a couple. You must have engaged conversations and effective dialogue in order to navigate differences well. Knowing how to handle stonewalling is a huge part of being able to open up that dialogue and conversation!

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