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

Communication Killers: How to Remedy Stonewalling

Communication Killers Remedy Stonewalling

Frequently in marital conflict, it’s not the topic of our conversations that cause the problem; it’s the contempt or disrespect that’s communicated through stonewalling. When trying to survive infidelity, emotions run high, neither party feels cared for or valued by their partner and the chaos seems insurmountable.  

After 35 years of helping couples in crisis due to infidelity, I have found that shutting each other down by refusing to communicate only makes things worse.

If you’re the one courageous enough to bring up the topic, begin by taking an honest look at yourself and how your approach to communicating with your mate has possibly lacked respect. Are you willing to admit that maybe how you’ve spoken to your mate hasn’t always been the most beneficial? If so, bring up the topic of communication by first asking if they’d be willing to have a conversation about making things better.

You may try something like this to get the conversation going:

“I don’t want to make things worse and I’m pretty sure you don’t either, but we’ve had trouble communicating in a way where both of us can feel respected and understood. I know this is as much my responsibility as yours, and I’m willing to work on how the two of us communicate in hopes of improving things between us.”

If you’re the one who stonewalls or even if you’re the one who has mere stonewalling tendencies, identify it as a problem and something you’d like to work on. You might begin by saying something like, “I know when I stop talking, especially when you want to talk, it frustrates you and we stay stuck. If you’re interested I’ve got some ideas of how we could improve our conversations so we could at least keep talking and make some progress.”

If your mate is the one who stonewalls, identify at least TWO possibilities for why they might use this technique. It’s important to come up with two reasons because regardless of how well you think you know your spouse, another person can never know for sure the inner workings of any individual.

You might say something like:

“I know when I flood emotionally I began attacking you and won’t listen to anything you say. I imagine you begin to flood and stop talking or answering my questions in hopes of getting me to just stop it.”

Or maybe something like:

“I may be wrong, but I suspect when you feel attacked and I start name calling you start feeling so much shame that you shut down and quit talking. Am I right?”

Once you have their attention, it’s possible to bring up some of these tips to help with what many of you identified as the number one barrier to communication after the disclosure of infidelity.

1. Timeouts:

If you feel the stonewalling might be the result of emotional flooding, defensiveness, or shame then it is a reflexive response and it will be important to step back from the content of what’s being said to allow all involved to calm down. Both of you need to look for signs the conversation is becoming unsafe. Begin by listing out the signs that either or both of you are beginning to flood or shut down and call a timeout at that point.

Research shows it’s impossible to carry on a rational conversation when either party is emotionally flooded, nor is it possible to be in a state of genuine compassion or concern for your mate. Until you’re both able to calm down you will only wound one another. I realize if you’re the type of person who needs to resolve arguments quickly to reduce your anxiety, taking timeouts to help with your mate’s emotional flooding will be difficult.

To avoid stonewalling, utilize the following timeout guidelines:

When

Either partner can call a time-out if a discussion/argument is starting to feel out of control. Most people cannot think clearly when angry, so postponing the discussion until both parties have moved back into the rational mind is necessary if you’re to have any kind of productive discussion.

How ** VERY IMPORTANT **

To utilize time-outs, you must first develop your time-out procedure. This has to be developed when you’re both calm. Failure to prepare beforehand is a guarantee for disaster.

Here are the points to consider while developing your plan:

1. A mutually agreed-upon signal for the use of time-out. (THIS is essential.)

  • It is best to have both a verbal and nonverbal (hand signal) way of communicating the need to take a time-out. Use the phrase, “I’m taking a time-out. I’ll be back in thirty minutes.” This makes it official. If you do not use the phrase “time-out,” then your mate won’t know that a previously arranged agreement is being called into action. The person who takes the time-out is the one who leaves the room.
  • Saying, “Time-out” is a statement, not a question. It is a “no matter what” agreement. If your partner says, “Time-out,” you must let him or her leave the room without further questions, statements, comments, shaming, or blaming. If you cannot reasonably follow your agreement, then you are out of your own control. No amount of saying, “If he didn't do that, then I wouldn’t follow him or call him,” will justify that you broke your agreement. If one person calls for a proper time-out and the partner does not respect it, then that partner is out of control. You can’t blame your way to saying, “It’s okay that I broke my agreement because (fill in the blank).
  • Both people wearing a pulse watch, with the alarm set at 100 beats a minute, is another way to signal the need for a time-out. If the alarm goes off, then the time-out is triggered and there’s no argument as to the validity of the need for the time-out.

​2. Both parties have to agree to disengage after a time-out is called. There is to be no following the partner who called the time-out. Admittedly this is difficult. For some, the only way they self-soothe is by withdrawing and processing the information in order to discuss the topic. Others need to keep talking to get resolution to reduce their stress. When this happens you’re at cross purposes, but recognize that it’s still necessary to use time-outs if you want to protect your marriage.

3. The conversation ends when the time-out is called. Never try to get in the last word. You’ll have an opportunity later to complete your discussion.

4. When calling a time-out, the following needs to be communicated:

  • That you agree to follow the time-out protocol.
  • That you agree to begin again in thirty minutes.

5. What to do during the thirty minutes:

  • Try to find something else to focus on such as reading a book, taking a walk or simply getting fresh air.
  • Try NOT to think or rehearse what you’re going to say when you come back together.
  • Don’t obsess about how angry you feel at the other person during this time. It’s a time to cool down so the discussion later can be more productive. 

6. Upon returning to the discussion:

  • Begin by stating two things you appreciate about your mate.
  • Each person presents his or her solution to the problem, and the other person listens without interrupting or belittling.
  • Both people focus on what aspects of the solution will work (rather than focusing on what won’t work).
  • Together, choose parts of both solutions that will make both parties satisfied.
  • Use “I” statements. Be flexible and look to compromise. Listen to see if you can understand how your mate is feeling and communicate your understanding. 
  • Don't:
- focus on “all or none” solutions.
- be rigid in only being open to your solution (e.g., “my way or the highway”).
- criticize the other person for his or her idea.

2.   Mutual Goals:

If you feel the stonewalling stems from keeping the peace, aggression or frustration then it’s a chosen response and it’s necessary to find mutual goals to provide the motivation to change the response patterns. By appealing to what you can both agree upon it’s possible to begin working toward a new approach.

It’s absolutely vital to identify how stonewalling inhibits your ability to achieve what you truly want.

Here are three, critical observations about the toxicity of stonewalling and why it becomes our go to response in these areas:

A. Peace at all Costs

  • Stonewalling is an attempt to keep the peace. It’s also a form of avoidance and leaves the person who’s stonewalling vulnerable to resentment and bitterness. If you continually stonewall and just go along to get along, eventually you’ll feel as if you’ve lost yourself and are at risk of becoming more withdrawn. In the long run keeping the peace leads to the death of a relationship. To survive relationships require mutuality. Love is a process of giving and compromise. Robbing the relationship of your voice limits you both. If you feel it impossible to speak up because your mate won’t listen, or if you feel you’re mate has an anger problem, see if they will use the timeout protocol mentioned above. Love always acts in the best interest of another and at some point if you honestly care about your mate you need to allow yourself to be heard. Peace at all cost is usually not a good thing.

B. Aggression

  • Stonewalling out of aggression is nothing more than the other person trying to transmit pain. While initially you may feel the other person deserves it, in the long run the person transmitting the pain is the one who pays the greatest price. Whether or not the relationship works out, our goal at Affair Recovery is for you to find an extraordinary life of meaning and purpose and stonewalling will never help you get there. As difficult as it may seem, the only way to deal with stonewalling out of aggression is forgiveness. You have to let go of the need to punish your mate for what they’ve done when surviving infidelity. To do anything else leaves you captive to what they’ve done and forever bitter.

C.  Frustration

  • Stonewalling out of frustration stems from a problem with objectification. Dealing with emotions generated by infidelity is difficult, but maintaining an attitude of compassion allows you to respond in ways that allow you self-respect. Typically frustration is a sign of your lack of regard for another. Instead of seeing them as someone of equal value to yourself, contempt takes over and you lose sight of the others humanity and can only see them as an object that needs to be controlled or manipulated. Often times shifting the focus to your own weaknesses or failures helps develop compassion and opens the way to new conversations.​

​Stonewalling kills relationships. If your communication suffers the least bit from stonewalling, you’ll absolutely need help and a plan to overcome its effects. The good news is, when you’re able to find a way through the agony of this pitfall, life on the other side can not only be fulfilling, but passionate and even one day joyful.

I hope you’ll consider signing up for our EMS Online course, it’s a 13 week course, geared towards helping both of you find clarity, expert insight and healing. You’ll find the curriculum not only creates safety but also provides a compassionate and gracious way out of toxic communication patterns like defensiveness, blame shifting and yes, even stonewalling.

 

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Comments

Stuck in Stonewalling HELL !

Praying that through counseling with your program and Crossroads to break through this problem or I fear our marriage is not going to make it.

Good article

Thank you Rick for this really good article. I am going to keep this to refer back to when needed. You gave so many practical ideas it will be very helpful in utilizing them. Thank you for the thoughtfulness, time, and effort you put into your articles. You are a blessing to me.

Very helpful

Thanks for previous article on stonewalling and this one. Identifying the problem and having practical ways of tackling it brings lots of hope to me.

Martial / marital conflict LOL :-}

Hi Rick,
Thank you so much for your articles and the excellent resources you have made available to those of us going through "martial" and <b>marital</b> conflict / combat!
I couldn't help but smile at your typo because the current 16 month therapeutic separation I am engaged in with my wife of 30 years had definitely felt like "martial combat" occasionally.
I look forward now to reading your article and taking in your wisdom, to hopefully improve our communication.
Best wishes
Tony

What if your spouse calls

What if your spouse calls timeout whenever the conversation becomes difficult or uncomfortable and then refuses to re-engage?

My feelings exactly...

This is a go to behavior for my spouse who is the betrayer. I've been given myriad reasons by therapists and coaches that its shame induced. I cannot feel compassion for someone who is so concerned with their own shame and not by the pain they caused another. Silence, walking away and saying he needs a time out is just an excuse for uncomfortable discussions; things he does not wish to talk about.

I've had to listen to hours of stories about his unhappy childhood, the early death of his father and the severe 'parenting' skills of a maternal uncle as to why he became addicted to porn and sexual behaviors. Yet he cannot manage any more than 10 minutes of my trying to grieve or explain my pain or loss of my life as I knew it before he tunes me out, becomes belligerent and walks away.

I agree

Same situation. My husband stonewalls so he doesn’t have to deal with reality. Last year he didn’t talk to me or acknowledge me for 62 days. Yes, I counted...

Losing Oneself

Hello, my spouse who was unfaithful about 3 yrs. ago, takes the stonewaller apporoach, This has been true for most of our 34 yr,. marriage. He comes from a quiet family with alot of time between siblings and was the youngest. I think he does it to "keep the peace". I come from a large family, and I'm the middle child and was and am still the peacemaker. But, I do like to discuss things when they occur and not let alot of time go by so that it becomes a situation that just sits and gets worse over time because it has not been discussed nor worked on for change to occur. I do tend to get angry when I'm shut out and then He gets afraid when I bring things up and want to talk about them, He says I'm not real tactful. I admit that all of this is true and over the years I have not even had the respect by asking if he is willing to talk. I just know that when we don't talk I bottle things up and become angry or agitated easily because I see the same patterns continuing and we still haven't discussed any of it. I also don't like the answer he typically gives and his follow up is poor so I dive in, I end up talking to him when it's late at night and we're both tired because honestly, that seems to be the time we are even together, including weekends, and I like coming to conclusions in conversations which puts alot of pressure on the relationship. I feel like maybe I've bullied him into listening to me now and he shuts down pretty quickly, more than ever, stays away more than ever and even now we've decided to split up mostly because he needs a break because he feels he is losing himself. So...I can see how this plays out. There ARE issues but we can't seem to get anywhere., We have been to counseling 2 or 3 times in our long marriage and those issues are there but we can't get to them. One of them is his way of escape that is detrimental and was a huge contributor to his affair because the place he goes to is not healthy for keeping a marriage together. This is one of the big issues, but can't be dealt with because of our way of communication. He will not see a counselor with me or without me even because he says, he is the problem and that is clear.and he doesn't like himself and doesn't know what to do about it. What if anything, can I do at this point? I believe that he will leave and not come back because it's just too painful for him and if we don't work on the issues with a counselor, I don't see a way to get past any of this. We both need help obviously. I am seeking my own counseling and he just wants to be left alone. After going through 2 separations already, and with some work I've done on myself, I feel I have grown and live in a more healthy way and I've tried but it's like its too late. That became clear about a year ago when all he does is to placate me. So, unless a huge miracle from God occurs, I think this may be the end for us. I have lost most hope and I believe it all lies in a lack of commitment to desire a healthy relationship and practicing good communication skills earlier on in our marriage. So I agree with your article and only wish I had seen and implemented it earlier AND that I had a willing spouse to do the same.

Stonewalling or Narcissism

Thank you for the article. My husband moved out of our home abruptly. I have subsequently found out that he was planning it for months. He had an affair which is probably still carrying on. We went through a year of hell with him refusing to co-operate. Probably because he never ended his affair.
He now does not respond to ANY form of communication and make arrangements with our young children without consulting me. There is no way that our relationship can be salvaged and even if by some miracle it could be, I will not take him back after all the damage that he has caused.

What type of affair was it?

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