Anxiety, Articles by Jacqueline McDiarmid, Relationships

My partner refuses to talk to me

In marriage counselling and relationship counselling, I often hear one partner raise a concern regarding their partner’s refusal to communicate with them
over differences or issues within the relationship. This may also relate to wider discussions like work issues, social concerns, friendship concerns.
When a partner refuses to engage in communication or walks away from it we call this stonewalling.

Stonewalling is a persistent refusal to communicate or express emotions with another person.

It is a common defence when arguments occur in relationships. It is not the same as taking time out to calm down. Taking time out to calm down can be a
good thing and is usually announced. Stonewallers often just disappear or look blank when their partner is attempting discussion.

Why is stonewalling bad? Refusing to engage with your partner is damaging and usually leaves the other person feeling shut down, unheard, unsupported
and lonely. In the long term this can result in a loss of connection between the couple. Especially if the person on the other side of stonewalling
starts seeking other people to share their feelings with.

What are some examples of stonewalling?

  • Walking away from an argument without saying whether they are coming back.
  • Refusing to comment in an argument or discussion, looking into space or somewhere else.
  • Verbally shutting down a conversation e.g. hand gestures to shut down the person talking, telling the person the conversation is finished etc.
  • Walking away when someone is in the middle of talking.
  • Looking at a phone or other technology while a person is speaking.

Why do people stonewall?

Sometimes stonewalling is a defence against feeling overwhelmed in conflict. This can be particularly true of someone who has come from a family where
anger/conflict was not allowed. It can also be because the stonewaller has come from a family where anger/conflict has gotten out of control or has
been abusive.

Some people who stonewall experience social anxiety and find it difficult and overwhelming to stay in high emotive situations. They report feeling trapped
and needing to get away in certain contexts.

Sometimes people stonewall when they are mentally unwell with depression. Depression affects cognitive processing therefore just other people talking normally
can feel too much for the depressed person.

Unfortunately stonewalling can also be a strategy used to control or manipulate the other person. Again if this is happening there is usually a reason
behind it.

We know that when people stonewall they become overwhelmed in conflict, the brain literally starts to shut down and so the person feels unable to speak
or has a need to get away from the situation. When I ask stonewallers about this they describe a flooding sensation in their body and an inability
to think straight.

What happens to the person who is stonewalled?

The person who is stonewalled typically pursues the stonewaller to communicate. If the partner continues to feel shut down by the stonewaller this can
lead to the other person increasing their pursuer behaviour. Obviously this doesn’t usually end well. Feelings of frustration and anger rise for the
pursuer and then big conflict and sometimes out of control conflict arises. Stonewallers commonly complain about their partner’s anger or being too
emotional. That they don’t feel safe with their partner. Of course their partner is raging to be heard and communicated with. It’s a perfect storm
between partners.

Over time the self esteem of people who are stonewalled is also impacted as they start to believe that they are indeed too emotional, angry or talk too

How does couple counselling help?

A good relationship counsellor will help a couple to unpack this dynamic in a safe context. The communication needs to be slowed right down in the therapy
process so that each person can see exactly when the stonewaller becomes overwhelmed and has a desire to disengage. Working out why a person stonewalls
is key to breaking this negative communication pattern. Helping the other person understand why the stonewalling is happening also helps with empathy
and patience.

Slowing down communication and stopping communication escalating out of control is the key to breaking this dynamic. I often find that I need to do
some work with the person who stonewalls around social anxiety.

The work in the therapy session is to help the couple communicate in a way that meets both people’s needs. I find once we have been able to identity the
reasons behind stonewalling then there is a quick and vast improvement in communication skills between the couple. I usually give couples strategies
and ideas they can use outside of the sessions straight away.

The good news is once this dynamic is identified, it can be easily sorted. Most couples are relieved when they understand what is actually going
on and can very quickly implement new ways of communicating.

If you think you might be in a relationship where stonewalling is occurring – either by your or your partner – please get in touch with us on 02 8968 9397 and we will work with you both to resolve this issue straight away.

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