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

Communication Killers: How to Remedy Stonewalling

Just last week Steph and I were having a lively discussion. Like many of our heated discussions I can’t even remember what it was about, but I do remember the rapid escalation and my anger boiling over. Just as I turned to walk away, (to permanently terminate the conversation) I remembered this blasted article I’m writing on stonewalling. Talk about hard. There was nothing I wanted more than to stop talking about whatever it was, but that reminder caused me to pause and let her know I needed a timeout and we could  pick this back up in 30 minutes. Funny, I still can’t remember what it was about.

My experience shows that’s true of many of us. It’s not the topic of our conversations that cause the problem; it’s the contempt or disrespect that’s communicated through stonewalling. When surviving infidelity it’s even more difficult. Emotions run high and more than likely neither party is feeling cared for, valued or understood by their partner. Shutting each other down by refusing to communicate only makes things worse.

My hope is for you and your mate to have at least one rational conversation about how the two of you communicate. I seriously doubt either of you want to be miserable and I bet  you’d both like to feel understood. If you’re the one bringing up the topic, begin by taking an honest look at yourself and how your approach to communicating with your mate has possibly lacked respect and concern. As you read this, 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. If they agree, they’re now engaged in the conversation and are more likely to participate.

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, identify it as a problem and something you’d like to work on. (Review the previous article on stonewalling and identify your personal reason for doing so.) 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, review the previous article on stonewalling and 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. Begin this conversation by giving your very best guess for their reason for stonewalling before ever bringing up any solutions. 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?”

Whether you or your mate is the one who stonewalls, by first giving your mate their best argument for their actions they are far more likely to engage and listen to what you have to say without being defensive. 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 infidelity.


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 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 to allow you to continue critical conversations.


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.


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.

  • 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. Don’t 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 or reading your Bible.
  • Do not think about 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 three 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 important to identify how stonewalling inhibits your ability to achieve what you truly want.

  • Stonewalling in an attempt to keep the peace is 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.
  • Stonewalling out of aggression is nothing more than the other person trying to transmit pain. While it may initially 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 needing 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.  
  • 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 especially when surviving infidelity. I hope these suggestions at least give some useful tips for finding a new way of communicating. If you struggle with stonewalling you’re not alone. The fact that it was the number one barrier to communication after infidelity shows the magnitude of this problem. You’re not alone; others also struggle. As a couple another venue for support with stonewalling is EMS Online. The community and content provided through the course can help with communication issues. Whether you utilize our courses or others please do something. There is hope!



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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.

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