Why Stonewalling Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

Research finds surprising problems for those who won't engage.

Posted Jul 28, 2016

Fabiana Ponzi/Shutterstock
Source: Fabiana Ponzi/Shutterstock

My partner for many years needed surgery for debilitating back pain, which had bothered him for quite some time. We never could figure out why he had such pain: He was slender, exercised frequently, and had good posture. 

But now I think I know why.

He used to leave when we had a quarrel. Over the years, when we lived separately, he would walk out of the apartment and go home. He left me in subways, hotel rooms, and crowded streets. I knew that if we had a fight he would flee. 

So, over the years, nothing was ever resolved.  

It turns out that what psychologists call stonewalling—ending conversations or withdrawing emotionally—is linked to stiff muscles and back or neck pain, according to research based on 20 years of data. The study also revealed that angry outbursts during quarrels with one's spouse predict heart trouble down the road. 

“We looked at marital conflict conversations that lasted just 15 minutes and could predict the development of health problems over 20 years for husbands," said study lead author Claudia Haase, an assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University.

The senior author, psychologist Robert Levenson from the University of California, Berkeley, has led several studies using data from 156 middle-aged and older heterosexual couples living in the San Francisco Bay Area. His team began tracking the cohort in 1989; the surviving participants are now in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s.

Every five years, the team videotaped the couples in a lab as they discussed events in their lives and areas of disagreement and enjoyment. The couples also completed questionnaires about their health. The team analyzed the tapes for evidence of anger—lips pressed tight, knitted brows, tight jaws, and loud or hissing lowered voices. Withdrawal, or “away” behavior, included facial stiffness, a rigid neck, and avoiding eye contact. The study also noted signs of sadness and fear but didn’t see any links to future health issues. 

What can you do to fight in ways that don’t make you sick or destroy your bond with your partner? All couples have conflict about issues that can’t ever be resolved completely. Happy couples aren’t uniquely free of trouble—the secret is in how they fight. These couples keep humor and affection flowing, making small gestures or jokes even in the midst of a battle. 

Couples researcher John Gottman identified the big mistakes that cause couples to break up. Guard against making critical assessments of your partner. If your partner doesn't leave a waiter a tip, instead of saying, “You’re so cheap,” you might say, “Did you dislike the service? I’m embarrassed when we don’t leave the usual tip.” 

Also resist being defensive. Let’s say your partner told you that he or she was embarrassed by the amount of your tip. Responding, "I took you out to dinner, didn’t I?” will tell them you’re not willing to listen to how they feel, and they're likely to get angrier. Saying something like, “I didn’t realize you were embarrassed. I’m feeling stressed about money and I wish we had more of a cushion," will bring you closer.  

You are stonewalling if you ignore your partner's comment, walk out of the restaurant ahead of him or her, and remain silent on the drive home. Marriages tend to end when too many issues remain undiscussed and distance grows. Instead, say to your partner, "I need a little time to respond to that,” and resume the conversation later. This shows that you’re taking care of yourself and not trying to hurt them. 

My partner would in fact show up again to talk it over. Still, his many abrupt departures helped make the relationship fragile. Despite our love, we didn’t last. 

A version of this story appears on Your Care Everywhere.