What is Stonewalling in a Relationship?
According to Dr. Gottman, stonewalling is a maladaptive defense mechanism that occurs when a person in a relationship withdraws emotionally from the partner because s/he feels overwhelmed by whatever is going on in the relationship.
As a psychotherapist in NYC who works with individual adults and couples, I've seen many clients who either stonewall their partners or who are in a relationship with someone who stonewalls.
Let's look at the following scenario, which is a composite of many different cases to protect confidentiality, to see how stonewalling can affect a relationship:
Nina and John:
When Nina and John came to couples counseling, they were a couple in their mid-50s who were contemplating divorce. As many couples do, they decided to give their relationship a last ditch effort in couples counseling before they filed for divorce.
Nina's main complaint was that whenever they were having one of their frequent arguments, John would tune her out by either hiding behind a newspaper or going into another room. Then, she would usually follow him and try to get him to talk to her, to no avail.
She said she knew, even when they were in the same room, that he was tuning her out because he had a distracted, blank look on his face. She knew he wasn't listening to her, and this infuriated her even more.
|Whenever John felt overwhelmed by their arguments, he would stonewall by leaving the room, which infuriated Nina.|
Whenever this happened, she said, the more she frustrated she felt, the more she would yell, and the more she yelled, the more John would withdraw into himself.
When it was John's turn to talk, he said that, at the start of their arguments, he would attempt to respond to Nina but, after a while, he felt so overwhelmed by her hostility that he just couldn't listen to her any more.
At that point, he felt the need to withdraw from her. As John explained his reaction, I recognized that he would become "flooded" (overwhelmed) by emotions which led to his stonewalling.
Based on their description of their dynamic, John and Nina were caught in a dysfunctional pattern. I explained to them that they were both reacting to one another in ways that made the situation worse. It was no wonder that their relationship had spiraled down to the point where they were considering a divorce.
Yet, as I told them, it was evident that they still loved each other. When I asked them to talk about the early days in their relationship, there were signs of the love that brought them together when they first met. They both talked fondly about how they met and what drew each of them to the other. They also smiled at each other as they reminisced about those early days.
I saw this as a hopeful sign, as compared to couples who give only a vague, neutral or hostile description of the early stage of their relationship.
I also noticed that even when they argued in the couples counseling sessions, each of them made small reparative gestures towards each other. Nina would touch John's arm lightly when she saw him getting upset. John would sometimes make a joke that would make Nina laugh.
I also saw this as a hopeful sign.
Reparative Gestures in a Relationship:
|When couples can still make even small reparative gestures in the midst of an argument, like making a funny face that breaks up the tension, it's a hopeful sign|
As John Gottman describes in his book, when one or both people in a relationship can make reparative attempts and the other person responds positively to it, it can break the tension and there is often hope that the relationship can be salvaged.
According to Dr. Gottman, frequent displays of contempt is a destructive dynamic in a relationship. But if there are reparative gestures that break the tension, this usually indicates that contempt hasn't completely destroyed the relationship. This has also been my experience with couples in couples counseling.
As it turned out, Nina and John were able to work through their problems in couples counseling because they still cared about each other and there was still something there to be salvaged.
If, after reading this article, you recognize the stonewalling dynamic in your relationship, you and your spouse can get help to salvage your relationship. Working with an experienced couples counselor, you can both learn better ways of interacting in your relationship.
Just as with any problem, the earlier you get help, the better. So don't wait until it's too late.
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.
I have helped many couples learn to develop healthier ways of interacting with each other so they could be happier in their relationship.
To find out more about me, visit my web site: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.
To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me: email@example.com.
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