Breaking Down Stonewalling: 12 Tips for Managing Communication Shutdown
Updated: Jul 2
Do you know what's worse than a screaming match? A stonewall. Stonewalling is when someone shuts down and refuses to talk, and it can be incredibly frustrating. But don't worry: if you're dealing with this behaviour in your relationship, there are ways to manage it. In fact, there are several things both parties can do to prevent stonewalling and make sure that they keep the lines of communication open in their relationship or marriage.
12 Tips for Dealing With Stonewalling
1. Stay Calm
The first step is to not panic. A stonewaller can be very frustrating, but it's important to stay calm and not get angry or emotional. They have probably been behaving like this for a long time, and they're used to getting their way. If you show them that they're making you feel bad or anxious, they'll just dig in deeper.
Another possibility is that miscommunication and arguments have been going on for so long in the relationship that the person has shut down, down and given up trying to communicate.
The sooner you seek relationship counselling the better before further damage is done.
2. Don't Take it Personally
Their behaviour may seem like a personal attack on you or your relationship, but it isn't—it's either about control and power or learned helplessness. They have either learned this coping skill from their family of origin or it has developed as a result of problematic dynamics in their relationship communication.
3. Avoid Blame
It is best to avoid blame as it will further drive a wedge between your partner and you. Instead, understand that there is a problem either with the communication between you which needs to be addressed. Again, this can be addressed through couples counselling.
4. Give Each Other Space
When your partner is stonewalling, it’s important to give them some space. When someone is angry or upset, they often need a little bit of time before they are able to talk about what happened and how they feel. By giving your partner some space, you can help make sure that they aren’t pushed into a corner where they feel like they have no other option but to shut down completely.
If you try too hard to get your partner talking right away, this could end up backfiring because it only makes them want to stonewall more! Instead of making the person talk about what happened when there isn’t much progress being made, allow your partner and yourself time out.
5. Don't Try to Fix the Situation
When people are angry, they're often not looking for advice but just want to vent, especially females. Males tend to just want to go straight to a fix which women find incredibly frustrating as they do not feel heard and supported. Men can struggle with this gender difference in communication. Instead:
Listen without judgement or criticism,
Give them your attention, including eye contact,
Reflect on what they are saying and how they are feeling, even if you do not agree,
Don't offer unsolicited advice or argue with them, and
Don't try to reason with them, as this can make them feel defensive and shut down even more.
6. Acknowledge Their Problem and Validate it
Acknowledge their problem, and validate that it’s real.
If your partner is stonewalling, they most likely have a good reason for doing so. They may be feeling angry or hurt by something you’ve said or done.
Whatever the cause, it will help to acknowledge their feelings and validate them. Validation doesn’t mean agreeing with what they are feeling. Validation means acknowledging the feelings as valid and important. It makes them feel understood and allows a better connection between you both.
It can also help to express empathy for how difficult things are for them right now: “I can see how hard this must be for you!” This type of statement lets them know that you understand how they feel and gives them permission not to talk about why or what to do next just yet — at least until they calm down enough to think clearly again.
7. Don't Apologise
Don't apologise too much or say something like "I'm sorry that you feel that way." This can frustrate the other person further and make them feel attacked.
Apologising is an easy way to diffuse your frustration, but it can also be counterproductive. In these situations, you’re likely to feel like you've apologised too much and that the other person is just being unreasonable. This will only make them angrier.
Instead of saying “I apologise for making you feel this way," try something like: “I’m sorry we disagree on this point." Or say something more specific about what they're doing that's getting under your skin: "When we have this conversation I feel criticised and we do not seem to ever resolve it?"
8. Start Soft to Engage
Start with a neutral topic like the weather or something else that doesn't have emotional baggage attached to it.
Before you talk about an emotionally charged topic, it might be helpful to start with a neutral topic like the weather or something else that doesn't have emotional baggage attached to it. This also allows you to test the water and assess their mood before discussing something that could provoke them. You want your partner to be in a position to feel comfortable discussing their feelings with you. If they don't feel comfortable, they will shut down.
9. Be Patient
Don't pressure them to talk or open up. The person you are trying to communicate with is already emotionally invested in the silence. They need to feel safe before they will respond. They will just shut down more if you try to rush them into talking.
If a stonewaller feels pressured, they will shut down even further. Shutting down is an attempt to protect themselves from further conflict or frustration at not being able to be understood or get their point across.
10. Time Out!
Make sure you give yourself time to cool off. If things are getting heated there is no point continuing, it will just make things worse.
Give yourself a break and do something unrelated to the conversation at hand. Here are some suggestions:
Leave the room you're in or go outside for fresh air.
Go for a walk around your neighbourhood or down the street. If there's somewhere else that makes you feel relaxed and happy, such as a park or library, go there instead!
Listen to music or read a book. This can be helpful because reading is a good distraction. When people read they generally get lost in thought about what they are reading rather than thinking about their problems so much.
If you're ready to talk but your partner isn't, wait and ask them when would be a good time to discuss the issue again.
Don't be upset if they don't want to talk then.
Don't pressure them into talking then or forcing them to talk at all.
Don't give up on the relationship or your partner yet—there's still time for things to improve!
Seek help from a psychologist who can provide relationship counselling.
12. Seek Professional Help
If your relationship issues are not improving over time or getting worse, then the sooner you access professional help the better. Find a registered health professional who offers relationship counselling.
Don't take stonewalling personally. It's not about you, and it doesn't mean that the other person doesn't care about you. Remember that it's a defense mechanism to help them deal with their emotions and give themselves time to cool off.
Stonewalling is a frustrating and painful experience, but it can be managed with patience and understanding. The first step is to let the other person calm down—don't try to solve things right away. Once they're ready to talk, don't rush them or push them into saying something that they may regret later.
Also, avoid making any assumptions about what may have triggered their need for silence. Try not to apologise too much or say something like “I'm sorry that you feel that way."
If these tips do not help then the sooner you both seek help through relationship counselling the better before further damage is done to the relationship.
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(c) 2023 Dean Harrison