Articles by Alex Ryder, Couple's counselling

Are you receiving the silent treatment? Stonewalling in relationships

Whenever you raise a problem in the relationship, your partner shuts down, gives you the silent treatment and won’t talk about it. Or the second that conflict arises, they check out.

It is a dangerous scenario in a relationship when your partner withdraws from verbal communication. It often triggers feelings of isolation, anger and disrespect, and it’s likely that things either escalate rapidly, or you also choose to withdraw for your own safety.

Stonewalling happens for two reasons:
  1. Psychological overwhelm – when emotions are too intense to manage the neocortex of the brain shuts down and we go into self-preservation. We disengage from the other person and either busy ourselves with something else or simply pretend they are not there. Therapists refer to this as “flooding”. You will notice the person is no longer responding to you. It is as if they are completely ignoring you.
  1. Learned behaviour – Over time people decide that disengaging is the safest and easiest response. In fact, that couldn’t be further from the truth. One partner may also employ stonewalling as a way to manipulate or cause pain. This can be a pattern of communication learnt from previous generations in a family.

When I work with a couple in couples counselling, I get them to try to understand which factors are driving the stonewalling behaviour so we can implement skills to protect the relationship.

Stonewalling can be extremely damaging for a relationship so it’s important that it is addressed as soon as possible.

Here are some strategies you can employ to break the pattern.
For you
  1. Don’t try to pursue a person who is unable to communicate or manage their emotions in that moment of time.
  2. Don’t try to mind-read and guess what your partner is feeling when they are stonewalling. Encourage them to speak later when their system has settled down.
  3. Recognise the stonewalling is about your partner, not you. Do not take responsibility for their emotions or their behaviour.
  4. Ask you partner in advance the best way to help when they are overwhelmed.
  5. Minimise blame and criticism as much as possible.
  6. Create boundaries to manage your own anger when your partner stonewalls.
  7. Learn to self sooth. Try not to go into self-righteousness or victimhood yourself while your partner is stonewalling.

Remember that while stonewalling may incite horrible feelings in you, the most common reason someone shuts down is to achieve the exact opposite. They are trying not to make things worse, and they think it is safer for both of you if they disengage. That is a key learning process for both parties in marriage counselling. Understanding that the stonewaller is often trying to minimise conflict, and therefore providing him or her with some alternative behaviours that will be much more effective. Here are a few tips to assist with that.

For the stonewaller
  1. Try to recognise when you are going into physiological shut down. People usually report feeling their heart rate rises, blood pressure rises and there is a general feeling of not being able to think or formulate words.
  2. Learn to self sooth. This might mean getting some fresh air or consciously deep breathing for 15 to 30 seconds.
  3. When you have been able to calm down again, return to your partner to continue the conversation.
  4. Discuss with your partner what happens for you when there is conflict between you and agree on a strategy for when this occurs.
  5. Start writing your thoughts and feelings to your partner so that it feels less confronting and you gain some confidence.

Couples need to work together to resolve conflict in a way that will work for both of them. If your partner is stonewalling, then you will need to help create an environment for resolving conflict where he or she has time and feels safe to process what is going on, and can then respond. If you are stonewalling, it is important that you tell your partner that this is happening for you when conflict arises so they understand you are trying to process things rather than just ignoring them. Couples counselling is a good forum to have this conversation safely, and provide you with some alternate strategies.

If stonewalling is present in your relationship, couples counselling at Sydney Couple and Family Specialists can help. Contact Sydney Couples and Family Specialists on 02 8968 9397.

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