Completely shutting down during an argument, also known as stonewalling is a persistent refusal to communicate or express oneself emotionally. It often arises in one partner during a time of conflict. People who do this are often trying to avoid conversations that may escalate into a fight.
For some people, clashes in a close romantic relationship can be overwhelming and even frightening. The partner who refuses to communicate or shuts down is making an unsuccessful attempt to avert conflict.
This Can Look Like:
- Refusing to discuss feelings
- General avoidance of discussing feelings
- Not bringing up hot topics for discussion
- Dismissing a partner’s concerns when they are brought up
- Refusing to make nonverbal communication cues
- Suddenly walking away during a discussion (or leaving the house)
- Not responding to questions
Stonewalling type behavior occurs on a continuum. This can range from refusing to discuss an issue for a short period of time to completely withdrawing for months. Stonewalling can be a passive-aggressive, manipulative or controlling strategy. Deliberate stonewalling by a partner is often a way to draw the situation out and prevent their partner from finding other ways to resolve the conflict.
The Receiving End of Being Shut Out
The shutout partner can feel hopeless, a loss of control, and negative sense a self-worth. This is very aggravating and distressing for the partner wishing to discuss the area of conflict.
Feeling shut out can cause the partner to escalate into anger and even say regrettable things in an attempt to get the stonewalling partner to open up.
Stonewalling may be a defensive tactic learned during childhood. It may have been a coping strategy that worked well depending on the early family history.
Later on, in an adult relationship, it doesn’t work well at all. Some people may also have difficulty identifying and expressing emotions as well depending on what they learned about emotions growing up.
Giving Stonewallers The Benefit of The Doubt
In defensive stonewaller, (opposed to punitive or manipulative stonewaller), conflict is often very overwhelming. They believe (unconsciously) their only choice is to shut it out (stonewall). This shutting down behavior is often the result of fear and an attempt to emotionally self-regulate.
According to research, men in particular often "react to disagreements with more signs of physiological stress than women do, and thus, they have been shown to be more likely to stonewall than women, often in an attempt to remain neutral or avoid conflict." ~Goodtherapy.org blog
The underlying experience of someone who shuts down, avoids or dismisses conflict is not what meets the eye. It's usually a self-protection strategy and not something intentionally meant to hurt the partner. It is a likely a learned coping strategy from childhood that served an important purpose. But, in an adult relationship, it works quite poorly.
The Shut Down Partner Usually Feels:
- A Failure
How To Help Your Spouse Open Up
- “Soften” your conversation startup. Don’t go at him or her angry or accusatory. Decompress before approaching the conversation to think through how to not trigger your partner’s worst fears.
- Create a safe space for your partner to talk to you. If you get reactive a lot, this is not safe.
- Remind your partner of what they are doing right so they don’t think they are always getting it wrong.
- Ask if he or she needs some time to think about things before talking.
- Ask what you can do to make the impending discussion easier.
- Directly ask if they feel overwhelmed, scared, fearful, and so on.
- Be open to feedback about the impact of your behavior on them.
- Sit down at a quiet time and talk about your communication patterns and how you both can help each other be more productive.
If this still doesn’t work, you can always let a professional marriage counselor guide you. Sometimes an objective person is what it takes to help both of you out of a negative pattern of communication. Therapeutic treatment also teaches the shut-down partner that there are other choices, such as letting their partner know how they feel (fearful, overwhelmed, etc.), self-soothing, regulating their emotions better, improved emotional engagement, and developing a safe connection with their partner. Ultimately, doing these techniques mutually with each other should help you both experience a much more peaceful relationship.