Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

How to Not Make Things Worse: Stonewalling

I was blown away by your overwhelming response to our Barriers to Communication survey last week. Over 1,200 of you responded leaving us with scads of information for future articles and program development. Thank you ever so much.

The number one barrier to communication identified by couples impacted by infidelity was stonewalling, followed by anger. While anger comes as no surprise given the devastation created by betrayal, I didn’t expect stonewalling to come in first (and by quite a majority too). Stonewalling is a total refusal to listen to, respond to or accept influence from your mate. If ever there was a time communication is critical, it’s during the crisis of infidelity.

Stonewalling doesn’t necessarily end at refusal to speak or listen to your mate; it can also be listening with contempt or total distain. Often stonewallers will use such statements such as: “leave me alone,” “I don’t want to hear it,” “I don’t want to hear what you think/feel,” “Go talk to someone who cares,” “Do whatever you want,” or “we’ve already discussed this, that’s enough.”

At Affair Recovery we stress the need to have rational conversations verses emotional conversations. For that to occur, safety in communication is essential. The subjective realities and opinions of both parties are necessary if shared meaning is ever to be developed. As humans we all want to feel we matter to our mate, that they care about us and that they are going to be there for us. Stonewalling shuts off the critical conversations necessary to reestablish the foundations of relationship.

As I write this I can only imagine how some might say that they don’t care about their mate’s perspective, but that attitude only shows contempt. According to Gottman’s research​1, contempt is the number one indicator of couples heading toward divorce. Gottman talks about this in the video at the end of the article.  For couples to reconnect they have to feel they matter to their mate. Good decisions require both parties contribute to the collective pool of meaning. Failure to do so smothers recovery. That being said, it’s easy to see why stonewalling generates such a barrier to communication.

If stonewalling is a problem in your relationship, see if you can identify the root of your response from the following list:

  1. Emotional flooding:

When conversations become unsafe our fight or flight response is triggered. For those who tend to flee, stonewalling is the response of choice. In these situations stonewalling becomes a method of self-soothing as the person floods. It’s almost as if they stick their fingers in their ears, shutting the other person out in hopes of calming down. These individuals tend to be like turtles who withdraw into their shells. If however they’re married to a partner who also floods but who’s natural response is to fight, then the couple become a bit like a turtle and a shark. The turtle withdraws into its shell while the shark is on the outside screaming “come out of there!” Both are deprived of what they need to heal.

  1. Keeping the peace:

Sometimes people stonewall because they feel it’s just not worth the conflict if they speak up. It’s easier to remain silent than to speak up and add their perspective to the pool of knowledge. While this approach might promote short-term peace, it is a death nail in the coffin of marriage. Intimacy is the ability to be naked and not ashamed. It’s a willingness to speak up and share your perspective. Without your contribution to the conversation the best decision can never be reached. Two thirds of the time intimacy in marriage creates short-term instability rather than peace, but in the long run it creates a powerful bond. You can never be loved unconditionally as long as you only conditionally allow your mate to know you.

  1. Aggression:

Pain that is not transformed will be transmitted and at times stonewalling is the vehicle for transmitting that pain. Either spouse can use stonewalling as a way to deny their mate another chance. This is especially effective if their mate is remorseful for what they’ve done and is asking for a second chance. The most effective way to inflict pain in this situation is to deny their attempts at reconciliation. Aggression can also be played out through stonewalling by refusing to even respond to your spouse’s anger or pain. It’s a destructive approach to attempt to rush restoration efforts through aggressive tactics or by attempting to hurry a spouse into forgiveness or trusting them again. Sadly, this is where many a bridge is burned through aggressive comments like “you just need to get over it.”

  1. Defensiveness:

At times the conflict seems so overwhelming that the only solution seems to be responding with anger or shutting it out through stonewalling. They fail to see that there are other responses such as assertiveness or emotional regulation. It’s absolutely vital to have some diffusing mechanisms in place to help prevent each potentially fragile discussion from turning into a slug fest of rage.

  1. Shame/humiliation:

The pain generated by shame or humiliation can also be a catalyst for stonewalling. Talking about the subject is far too painful so they respond withilence in hopes of shutting down the conversation. For the unfaithful, shame not only grows, but flourishes in dark places and its only medicine is to bring it to the light in a redemptive way. When shame is discussed in a way that is restorative, it paves the way to disarm its momentum which can then foster not only open communication, but also healing for both spouses.

  1. Frustration:

Frequently frustration drives stonewalling. While it may block their goal of resolution it seems preferable to speaking without being heard or believed. Feeling misunderstood and unheard leaves people feeling unloved with little motivation for speaking up and sharing their reality. This situation is frequently created when the hurt spouse continually asks the same questions over and over. The unfaithful spouse must understand that the reason their mate continually asks the same questions is because they want to believe you, but it just doesn’t make sense. They keep asking the same question in hopes that they can understand.

There are so many negative repercussions of stonewalling. For the hurt spouse stonewalling creates fear. In the survey it was apparent that stonewalling on the part of the unfaithful continues to generate suspicion in the hurt spouse that there’s more going on that they still don’t know. Stonewalling in the betrayed spouse creates hopelessness and a belief that things can never be worked out, so why try anyway.  

If stonewalling is a problem in your communication, begin by first identifying why you or your mate stonewall. Next week we’ll discuss ways to remove the barrier of stonewalling.

 

1Gottman PhD, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail…and How You Can Make Yours Last. New York: First Fireside Edition registered trademark of Simon & Schuster Inc., 1995. Print.

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Comments

SPOT ON !!

Again, Rick, you have nailed it ! This is EXACTLY where my husband and I are stuck. Thank you for continuing to share your valuable insight and experience to couples, like us, who are trying to reconcile and heal.

Stonewalling

As I read this ... I feel my case I the unique the " common" stuff doesn't apply or help me. After 12 years of dealing with my hubby having a continues affair.. I feel no one can help me or us. When I gently confront him on new evidence that the affair still is happening ( though he assures me it's not) he calms up won't talk about it or us.. He " sweeps" it under the rug. He won't answer simple questions like : are you still involved or communicating with her ? He ignores me . He will talk to me about our kids issues etc. Kiss me on the forehead good bye. But no I loves you ( which he does often when he knows he is not being busted ) all will I get an emotional twister inside. Until I get a hold of my own emotions enough to bury them to act like nothing ever happen then he goes back to his old loving self and life goes on. But I am tired n worn out I am more then forgiving and loving and willing to work thru all his issues and ours but I feel be never wants to talk when we r in crisis... Like his in denial. He says he doesn't ant divorce but doesn't stop this affair behavior. So is he stone walling me?

Stonewalling

This sounds so much like my husband and he is in denial. I have so much proof but he still denies. He still lies and has lied to our kids and they know it. Two of our 3 daughters will have nothing to do with him. This is the icing on the cake after years of walking on eggshells. These are passive aggressive personality individuals or emotional abusers. My husband has stuffed his emotions down so there is very little conscience.
He does not want to answer to no one. He has so many friends but not one true friend. They are cruel and they blame everyone else for their
problems. They are never happy and live with eternal misery. Most of the time their upbringing is the cause for this. It is a learned behavior and and like alcoholism, they have to recognize it to change it. Hard to do. I have and continually pray for God to give me the strength and wisdom to do the right thing. I don't want a divorce but I will not live with dishonesty any longer. He just stays in the basement like everything is ok. It is so sad and his mother still enables him. I realize now I have been a rescuer to him all these years. I have stopped enabling him hoping for him to wake up. So far nothing. Look up passive aggressive on internet. There are all kinds of information.

Great article

One of the most helpful I've read.

Thanks.

absolutely

We've both done in this process, but I'd say him more than me. He is the unfaithful one and when I am upset he turns it on me. He says "I'll just give you the divorce you want" and "You will never trust me again so what's the point?" and "You don't think this is worth it." We've been working hard. He has had NC but yesterday I found through looking at our cell records online he was texting the other woman's mother, probably the other woman on her mom's phone, for up to two hours the night before last. He insists those messages never got to his phone. I scoffed at that and said "what you think you've been hacked." which was great because now he has an excuse. A talk with our phone carrier and it turns out he could have been hacked and these people could be playing tricks on us, but I still don't believe him. He's lied to me for years -- this time is no different. So, yes, I am stonewalling reconciliation out of fear and out of self protection and out of the need to protect my seven year old son from a father I see as a liar.

Stonewalling

How can I stop doing this? I am the unfaithful one in this case. It ended 3 years ago, she found out 3 months ago, working towards understanding this all.
I am COMPLETELY transparent and completely 100% responsible for what I did to our family. I am committed to winning her back.
I said these things last night.
I'll leave if that is what you need"
"You will never trust me again so why would you want to live the rest of your life with me?"
"You don't think this is worth it."

She says such hurtful things to me, which I completely deserve, but it continues to chip away of my hope for reconciliation.
I withdraw, essentially exhibiting a form of Stonewalling.
From one that has been hurt, what does she need me to do during these moments? Please tell me that she doesn't really mean or believe what she says is true in her heart.

Stonewalling

I bet most of the people that are unfaithful have passive aggressive personalies like my husband. He won't discuss any issues regarding our marriage and his unfaithfulness at all. They don't like to resolve anything. They think they will lose control. If I try to bring up anything, he gets so defensive. He says he don't want a divorce, but when they refuse to open up, they are really saying "Here I am, take it or leave it." They blame everyone but themselves for their character deficiencies. If anyone has any ideas at all other than getting a divorce, please let me know.

This Stonewalling they do.

One more comment---My husband says he don't have to answer to no one. The affair is over and that is it. He just wants me to pretend everything is ok just like his mom did. He tells me if I want a divorce that is fine, he does not. How cruel can you get? I feel so stuck because I don't have the money to move out and he will not. He stays in the basement and I stay upstairs. I hate the fact that I live in a no fault state where the innocent one pays all the way around.

Uh oh

Gottman is right on...and that video pointed just how much of a critic I am. Te to start looking for the good. Hopefully that gives my relationship a better chance to survive.

Stonewalling

I am the shark in our relationship. I display a gambit of emotions. I cry uncontrollably, I shame my unfaithful spouse, I make fun of him, I am sarcastic. When I become critical he says NOTHING. He says he deserves the way in which I hurt him, and that "he can take it for a while". Afterwards he goes to bed. I feel anxiety every time I see him getting in bed. Since I relocated so we can finally be together, we live in a hotel. We are renting our house and I put what I had left of our possessions in a storage unit. He goes to work at 5:00 a.m. and gets back at 4:00 p.m., we have dinner and then he gets in bed at 7:00 p.m. I do not have any friends, I go to bible study once a week, but I could hardly spill my guts out. I was really close to my grandchildren and derived a lot of pleasure from my relationship with them. My unfaithful spouse says that our marriage was always crappy. Pretty encouraging. I am committed to save our marriage but have very little hope. His sexual behaviors online range from emotional affairs with somebody he met two years ago and went looking for her again, and found her. And had so many women that he was involved with that he doesn't even remember all he did. When I got here it took him one month to stop contacting his AP. So, yes I am angry. I feel that I am insane. Do I want this marriage to work?, yes, but it seems that at the moment the only thing I am doing is sabotaging it.

Excellent

Rick & Co.:
I missed taking the survey but I'm so glad you are sharing the results!!!! I'm not surprised at the results! Stonewalling by my husband for probably 4 out of the 6 reasons given has definitely led me to stonewall in frustration myself.
I've come to terms with it all - I know I cannot make my my husband want to open up with me and either I live with that or I move on. It took me about 3-4 years to come to terms with that, I've grieved for the past few more years, and once I can figure out how to afford divorce and also how to get past the potential effects on my teen kids, and the time away from my kids as a "split family" I will be able to move on. The problem is my husband stonewalls on all issues and financial matters are very precarious for me because of his lack of concern about financial management (the longer I've stayed the more I've lost).

Much of the anger I had to let go of was from trying to breakdown the walls. So I stopped trying to bust his walls -
The relief is allowing me to heal from the betrayal - finally....
I can finally accept the demise of the marriage...
Now it's just pragmatics.
I lost my husband so long ago I don't even miss him anymore...
Very sad - but the reality is I did everything I could.

"I can't make you love me if you don't."
I'm sorry I lost so many years trying...

My Unhealthy Responses

This article really helped me to pinpoint my two "go to" responses when dealing with emotional pain and conflict in relationships (not just marriage). I typically emotionally flood when hurt and also try to keep the peace if a disagreement arises that I don't feel capable of handling. I think these have been my responses to conflict my entire life due to the emotional dysfunction in my family growing up. Reading this article made me realize I need to be more confident in asking people I love the simple question "Is there something we need to discuss? If so, I am willing to do what it takes to work it out." Thank you so much for your article this week, Rick. It was very helpful.

Stonewalling .....

Since the D-Day, I am still trying to cope with it. Some days are good, and some are bad.
I really would like to move on and throw everything behind me and start anew. But the very thought of his actions, and he has done with that woman over 2 years shattered me.
Than it is another uphill task again.
My husband said he has completely blokced her out of his memory, while I keep reminding him about it.
This is where we go into stonewalling.... I am aware of it, but I cannot help myself. Those are sentences I said eg leave me alone. But I also asked myself for how long....
I dare not go and see a therepist, as I feel it is an weakness on my part to allow others to control my life. And in the process I would be washing a lot of dirty linen to the therapist.
Neither do I want to continue living like this feeling miserable, than I am good enough and feeling sorry for myself, as I am so shattered in my outlook of myself. By the way, she was a sweet young half his age of 58.
I have depended heavily on your articles to help myself going through this....cannot go to church too, as his image in the public eyes would be shattered as well. 2 wrongs cannot make a right, so here goes, I am suffering in silence.

You must go to Rick

You must go to Rick or one of the people here. Talk online or on the phone if you can't get there. I am 18 months out now. And I went through everything you are. You must get validation for how wonderful you are, and not feel this way in silence. Please please talk to someone here. I have made it to the other side already, knowing that our marriage is stronger now because of the affair. Please get help here you are NOT alone...

When Stonewalling is a Personality Trait

My husband has always stonewalled, while I wear my heart on my sleeve. I feel like my life with him is like a carnival game. I'm throwing darts at balloons hoping to hit the one he wants me to hit, the one with the prize underneath. I have no idea how to make him happy though I have tried. His reason for his affair was simply "I haven't been happy in 10 years." Well, over those 10 years, I've seen him as a black hole, sucking everything in, while I had no idea where it was going or if it was making a difference. Stonewalling, as a communications strategy is a pretty poor choice...because ultimately, nobody is happy.

Stonewalling as Communication

Anytime I communicate and am transparent with my spouse, he doesn't listen, gets angry and defensive, and verbally mean and condescending, resorting to an all out attack. Leaving me feel like I have just lived through a hurricane. The aftermath, me feeling angry and resentful that when I am honest and transparent it is definitely not going to get me anywhere. I resort to stonewalling because of this, as a means of self-protection. I am tired of being hurt over and over verbally, because verbal communication is supposed to be the means to being able to make some headway, right? What else do I do in this position? I do not feel that it helps in the least to go through this over and over.

Stonewalling as Communication

Anytime I communicate and am transparent with my spouse, he doesn't listen, gets angry and defensive, and verbally mean and condescending, resorting to an all out attack. Leaving me feel like I have just lived through a hurricane. The aftermath, me feeling angry and resentful that when I am honest and transparent it is definitely not going to get me anywhere. I resort to stonewalling because of this, as a means of self-protection. I am tired of being hurt over and over verbally, because verbal communication is supposed to be the means to being able to make some headway, right? What else do I do in this position? I do not feel that it helps in the least to go through this over and over.

I need to stop stonewalling

I need to stop stonewalling my husband, but I have no idea how to stop! There's been no infidelity, but I just have a hard time telling him my thoughts. I love him dearly, so I don't believe it's because I've fallen out of love. I have anxiety and I'm a hyper-sensitive person, and my husband has a TBI which can cause him to get very loud and in your face when he's angry.. I just want our marriage to last, so I need to learn to feel comfortable expressing how I feel..

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