Breaking Through the Stonewall in Relationships

The last of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is Stonewalling.

Stonewalling is:

A response to conflict evidenced by an unwillingness or inability to connect with the other party.

When someone is stonewalling they remove themselves from the conflict by either offering no response or physically distancing themselves. (i.e. running away) For some it’s literally like talking to a stonewall, whereas for others it’s like the person disappears when any signs of conflict arises. Stonewalling is a strategy that is employed as a means of self-preservation because the one who is stonewalling feels like they are overwhelmed, threatened or inadequate to successfully enter into conflict.

It is a tremendously frustrating for the other person because, no matter how hard they try they can’t break through and have their feelings understood. Ultimately, if stonewalling persists it leads to isolation and relational destruction.

So why do people stonewall? Here are some causes:

  • Physical flooding: When we feel threatened our sympathetic nervous system produces neurochemicals in the brain that reduce our ability to think rationally. In short, we are reduced to survival mode. When this happens we are unable to connect with the person with whom we’re in conflict much less have empathy with their concerns. Signs of this physical response can be detected when our pulse exceeds 100 and we find our respiration labored, muscles tense and thoughts tangential. At this point it is futile to attempt to have a meaningful conversation until the parasympathetic nervous system has been activated and the offending neurochemicals have subsided. Studies have shown that in marriage counseling when one or both parties become flooded during a session taking a ½ hour break allows the couple to come back to the same argument with good results.
  • Learned response to conflict: Some of us have learned to avoid conflict because healthy conflict was never modeled to us. We grew up with a deficit of confidence that we could be in conflict with another and still be in relationship.

Two scenarios of childhood are:

  1. We grew up on a family where we were ridiculed and emotionally abused
  2. We grew up in a family where conflict was never seen openly. Although it existed (because it always exists) it was hidden and was often demonstrated in passive aggressive behavior and/or sarcasm. (i.e. no clean arguments or disagreements.)

So how do we remove stonewalling from conflict?

When the physical manifestation of flooding becomes evident, learn how to self-sooth. The fastest and easiest way to reverse the effects of flooding is to develop an ability to relax by learning how to breathe slowly. The breath is the golden pathway to quieting our fears and reducing stress and anxiety. Try it. Breathe in through your nose slowly for five seconds and hold for five seconds and then exhale slowly through your mouth for five seconds. Do that ten times and you will effectively trigger your parasympathetic nervous system.

Develop a mindset that your value, worth and identity does not come from another’s opinion of you nor from your performance. If you discover your intrinsic self-worth and are able to integrate that understanding into your identity and your relational interactions you will be far less vulnerable to fearing conflict. Conflict is inevitable, in fact all healthy relationships have conflict. Studies show that 69% of all marital conflict is perpetual. So we need to learn the skills of handling conflict well if we are ever going to have healthy relationships.

As always if we can ever be of assistance to you we’re here to help!