Is This You?
Have you ever felt like ignoring a problem until it goes away? It’s a great idea if you have a minor pain, maybe, or a difficult coworker you hardly ever see. But some problems just get worse and worse. They multiply like mold growing in a damp place in your home, or a leaky roof. Some problems compound over time if you turn your back on them.
In relationships, turning your back on a problem (and a person) is called stonewalling — and it’s one of the four worst communication problems you can have. In fact, “stonewalling” is in the list of marriage researcher John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” as one of the signals that a marriage is in grave danger of failing.
What Stonewalling Looks Like
You may already know what it feels like if you’ve been on the receiving end. It’s when someone flat out won’t deal with an issue, and maybe won’t even talk to you at all. Some couples go on for hours, days, weeks, even months like this. Or maybe you are the one who’s doing it, not realizing how damaging it can be. Do you turn away from your partner and wait for things to “blow over” or to punish him (or her) for hurting you?
As common as this behavior is, it is dysfunctional and can really hurt things over time. As communication problems go, stonewalling is particularly damaging. It gives the message to the other person that “I don’t care about you.” And that is a very hurtful message to send to someone you love. I also know that underneath, the stonewalling person feels quite the opposite. What looks like “I don’t care” on the outside usually looks like “I care so much I can’t stand it.” When someone acts as if you don’t exist, it’s because you are so very important that they don’t know how to deal with the pain of whatever hurt they are feeling. They turn away to try to protect themselves and minimize the relationship, at least temporarily, in their mind.
Of course, when one person becomes unavailable, it often triggers their partner to do way more of the thing they fear. Someone putting up a “stone wall” to their partner often finds the other person getting even more angry, more critical, more persistent in trying to get them to deal with them. Unfortunately this often serves to reinforce the avoidance behavior even more.
It’s Not Hopeless
There are things you can do. In therapy I tend to identify these behaviors. I help each partner start to take responsibility for their own part in this unhealthy communication pattern. I also usually find there are thoughts and feelings that they have not been aware of. The next step is sharing them with each other.
Of course you will get into one of these communication patterns at home. That’s when you have to get to work to break the cycle. For someone stuck in a pattern of stonewalling, a big step in reversing the problem is to admit to doing it. “I am avoiding you because I’m overwhelmed by this argument. It’s not because I don’t care.” This is a tall order. It would require swallowing a lot of pride. But it can make a big difference. It would be even better to set an appointment to talk in an hour, or some relatively short period of time. That way the person feeling shut out can feel reassured it’s not forever.
There Are Steps You Can Take
For the person who is being shut out, you can break the cycle. Sometimes just knowing that the other person is hurt too can help. It makes a difference knowing they really do care deep down. If you ever find your partner is avoiding you, it’s always an option to let them know that you love them. I know — it seems awfully hard to say “I love you” to someone who seems bent on showing you how unimportant you are. But it also demonstrates a lot of faith in the relationship if you can rise above the automatic defenses and speak to the person behind the “stone wall.”
It might sound something like this: “I know somewhere in there you are hurting. I am too. But I want you to know I love you and want to work this out.” This may not “work” in the sense that it fixes everything right away. But it kind of “lowers the drawbridge” and allows your partner a glimpse of a way out of the deadlock. It may help them swallow their own pride and come out of hiding.
Margie Wheelhouse is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Springfield, Illinois. She helps couples build great relationships and repair broken ones.