Where does stonewalling come from, and how do we recognize and deal with it?
Stonewalling is withdrawal from a conversation when the other person raises a criticism or concern (Gottman, 1989). In the face of a conversation that somebody does not want to have, they simply tune out, or refuse to talk about the topic at hand. The key aspect here is that there is some kind of conflict that needs to be resolved, but one person is simply unwilling to have that conversation.
Often, stonewalling occurs in relationships. It has been studied the most in the context of romantic relationships (e.g., Gottman, 1994) because conflict and the need for effective conflict resolution are hallmarks of romantic relationships.
Research tells us that stonewalling happens most in couples that have a certain kind of dynamic. In particular, stonewalling is most frequent in couples where one person is more likely to get upset about things, and then voice those concerns, while the other person tends to avoid conflict (Busby & Holman, 2009). This is also sometimes called a pattern of demand and withdraw behavior (Holley et al., 2013).
Relationships where one or both partners stonewall the other are generally much less satisfying and stable than relationships that do not feature stonewalling (Busby & Holman, 2009). As we will see in more detail below, stonewalling is often a sign that a relationship has devolved to the point where one or both partners are so reluctant to engage with the other that they stonewall against any kind of meaningful connection (Gottman, 1994).
What Does Stonewalling Look Like?
A telltale sign of stonewalling is intentionally not paying attention to the other person, especially when they are trying to get the stonewaller’s attention (Coan & Gottman, 2007). When a stonewalling person does engage in conversation, they will use little eye contact, give minimal answers, not move around much, and not advance the conversation in any meaningful way (Gottman, 2000). For example, they may turn away from the person who is speaking, respond in grunts, or simply not respond to what has been said (Gottman & Levenson, 1992).
Another tactic that clearly demonstrates the desire to stonewall in the conversation concerns facial expressions. Stonewalling involves little facial movement (Coan & Gottman, 2007). The face of a person who is stonewalling may look frozen or stiff, like they are clenching their neck and jaw tightly (Gottman, 1989). This could reflect the actual physical effort involved in resisting the natural urge to respond to somebody who is speaking to you. It is effortful to shut down in the face of somebody you are close to, but that is exactly what stonewalling entails.
Why Does Stonewalling Happen?
The romantic relationships researcher John Gottman, who was one of the first people to define and study stonewalling, described the series of events by which a person can arrive at stonewalling (Gottman, 1994). In the face of initial criticism, a person can easily become defensive. When that defensiveness is met with contempt, one might stonewall you to avoid having to face your contempt.
On the other hand, it might be that in certain circumstances, any criticism is just too much; it floods our systems, and in the face of that overwhelm, we instinctively try to shut everything out. For example, a person who has experienced sexual assault might become flooded when their partner makes a sexual advance toward them. In this situation, stonewalling might be a very natural response – it seems likely to keep them safe from having to think about it or be sexual.
How Do I Stop Stonewalling?
If you realize you are stonewalling, it is probably in the context of topics that are pretty challenging for you. First of all, know that this is okay – we all have hot-button topics that fill us with dread or make us want to stick our fingers in our ears. Here are a couple steps you can take to deal more effectively with that reaction (Carpenter, 2020):
Acknowledge what’s happening. You could say, “It is just too hard for me to talk about this right now” or “I know this is important to you, but I get overwhelmed when I think about this.”
Find a better time to discuss. You could say, “Can we come back to this tomorrow morning? I think a full night’s sleep would help me be ready to talk”, or “How about we come back to this topic after I’ve had my morning coffee?” or even, “I think this is something that we should wait to talk about until we see our couples’ therapist.”
Take care of yourself. Do what you need to do so that you’re ready to come back to the topic later. That might mean taking a walk, calling a friend, having a hot drink, or doing some other activity that will help you relax.
It is really important, if you want to stonewall about something, you do your best to bring the topic up yourself at the time you suggested. This sends the opposite message of what stonewalling sends. It says: “I have a hard time talking about this, but it matters to me and I will figure out how to have the conversation.”
Responding to Stonewalling
If somebody is stonewalling you, I would encourage you to gently suggest that they follow similar steps to what I just described. It’s important to stand by how important the issue is to you, though. Here’s something you could say:
“I really want to have this conversation, but it doesn’t seem like a good time. When would work better for you? Is there anything I can do to help us have a better time with this topic?”
I hope that this article gives you an understanding of why people stonewall and what to do about it. Stonewalling is a clear sign that either a relationship is in trouble or that a particular topic is very upsetting for somebody. If there is stonewalling happening around you, try to understand it in a calm moment. What is threatening about the topic to the person who is stonewalling? What would make the conversation feel safer for that person? With careful consideration of these questions, you stand a better chance of promoting better communication in your relationships.
Busby, D. M., & Holman, T. B. (2009). Perceived match or mismatch on the Gottman conflict styles: Associations with relationship outcome variables. Family Process, 48(4), 531-545.
Carpenter, E. T. (2020). Stonewalling and taking a break are not the same thing. Family Perspectives, 2(1), 10.
Coan, J. A., & Gottman, J. M. (2007). The specific affect coding system (SPAFF). In J. A. Coan & J. J. B. Allen (Eds.), Handbook of emotion elicitation and assessment. Series in affective science (pp. 267–285). New York, NY: Oxford University Press
Gottman, J. M. (1989). The Specific Affect Coding System (SPAFF) (Unpublished manuscript). Seattle, WA: University of Washington.
Gottman, J. M. (1994). What predicts divorce: The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1992). Marital processes predictive of later dissolution: Behavior, physiology, and health. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 221–233.
Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2000). The timing of divorce: Predicting when a couple will divorce over a 14‐year period. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62(3), 737-745.
Holley, S. R., Haase, C. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2013). Age-related changes in demand-withdraw communication behaviors. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 75, 822–836.