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How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Relationship


Key points

  • Stonewalling is an absolute refusal to consider your partner’s perspective.
  • Stonewalling is a divorce-predictive behavior and is a tactic used more by males, according to research.
  • Defensive stonewallers may think they need to protect themselves, even though they appear to be mean.

The second behavior that predicts divorce with over 90 percent accuracy—along with criticism, defensiveness, and contempt—is, according to John Gottman's research and the experience of most couples' counselors, stonewalling. Different from an occasional timeout to calm down or collect your thoughts, stonewalling is an absolute refusal to consider your partner’s perspective. If you listen at all, you do it dismissively or contemptuously.

The common songs of the stonewaller are:

  • “Just leave me alone…”
  • “Do whatever you want...”
  • “End of conversation…”
  • “Stop talking...”
  • “Get out of my face…”
  • “That’s enough…”
  • “I’ve had it!”

The other key divorce-predictive behaviors are gender neutral, i.e., men and women do them more or less equally. Stonewalling, according to the research of Gottman and others, as well as the experience of most couples' counselors, is far more likely to be a male thing. When women stonewall, it’s typically a function of temperament – they’re shy, inhibited, or introverted. More commonly, it’s learned behavior: Engaging in conflict or emotion-laden conversation has exposed them to put-downs or abuse in the past.

Of course, cultural reinforcement plays a large part; the icon of the “the strong, silent male,” reinforces stonewalling.

Men are less likely than women to know when they stonewall because it seems so natural for them. A sure sign that a man is stonewalling is if he believes his partner nags him. That means he’s not listening. A "nagging" partner is an unheard partner.

Frustrating vs. Painful

The experience of being stonewalled tends to be different for men and women. Men who are stonewalled feel frustrated: Their goal of resolution is blocked. But the experience is downright painful for women who are stonewalled, as they are apt to feel isolated – a sense that no one cares about them. To understand the effects of stonewalling on most women, a man need only think of how bad humiliation feels. That’s how isolation feels to his partner, which is why she tries so hard to break through the stone wall.

Aggressive vs. Defensive Walls

In aggressive stonewalling, the stonewaller knows that the silence, cold shoulder, and emotional isolation hurt his partner. He stonewalls to gain leverage or power. This is a common tactic in battering relationships, in which the more powerful partner systematically controls or dominates the less powerful one.

In defensive stonewalling, conflict seems overwhelming to the stonewallers. It seems that their only choice is to shut it out (stonewall) or crush it with aggression. So shutting it out seems the better of the two. Of course, treatment teaches them that there are other choices, such as emotion regulation, engagement, and connection.

Looks Different on the Outside

While stonewalling can look aggressive, mean, or childish from the outside, it feels very different on the inside. The defensive stonewaller feels like he’s trying to protect himself. He can also think that he’s protecting his family.

Not only have I observed this countless times in my clients, but I also experienced it in my personal life. For about 10 years or so, before becoming a therapist, I regularly stonewalled my wife when things got hot. I was afraid of my anger, having grown up in a severely violent home. I never wanted my wife or daughter to see that kind of rage or know that kind of chaos. In truth, I never had that kind of anger, but there was always the fear.

I had to learn, as all stonewallers need to do, that we need to step outside ourselves to see our behavior more objectively. We stonewall to avoid feeling inadequate. We’re convinced that we’ll fail if we try to engage — as communicators and, more important, as husbands and boyfriends.

Like all avoidance strategies, stonewalling only proves that we are inadequate and unlovable, or else we wouldn’t need to do it. Thus the more we do it, the more it seems that we need to do it.

The trick to overcoming feelings of inadequacy is to realize that, when considering everything we’ve ever done that required a certain level of skill, we were inadequate at doing it when we first started. The discomfort of inadequacy motivated us to learn to do the task, at which point we gained a feeling of competence and mastery. We can use feelings of inadequacy in love in the same way, as motivation to learn how to be better partners and parents.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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