Resolving Conflict in Relationships: Overcoming Stonewalling and Reaching Understanding
By Corinne Farago
Building Walls One Stone At A Time
The term ‘stonewalling’ conjures up an apt metaphor of the act itself. You can imagine one partner silently, building a wall, one stone at a time, to keep the other out. After a while the wall is so high, neither partner can see over it or through it.
Stonewalling is a form of emotional and physical withdrawal in which one partner in a relationship refuses to engage or communicate with the other partner in the midst of disagreements or conflict.
Stonewalling may involve a lack of response to a conversation, a refusal to discuss a point of conflict, or an unwillingness to find resolution. It can also be experienced as a physical withdrawal from a partner by walking away or avoiding being together in the same room, or in some cases the same bed.
Identifying Patterns of Behavior that Lead to Stonewalling
I’m inspired to talk about stonewalling this week, because of recent discussions with one of my new coaching couples.
They both came to me complaining about a loss of intimacy in their relationship, both emotional and physical.
They acknowledged that most all of their intimacy challenges were based on resentment and unhealthy patterns of communication that generated bad feelings on a regular basis. I’ll call them Eric and Shannon.
Eric grew up with family members who used anger as a way to control others. As a child his response to that environment was to step out of the angry words and use stonewalling as a way to punish and protect himself from feeling emotionally overwhelmed. Now as an adult Eric’s old stonewalling strategy is literally threatening the future of his relationship.
For Eric, stonewalling had become his most familiar way to bypass conflict with Shannon. In his mind, he was avoiding making things worse by removing himself from the threat, and retreating emotionally and physically.
To Shannon, Eric’s stonewalling was the very behavior that was creating the most damage. In her mind it was often more damaging than the original conflict. She was hurt by Eric’s disconnection from her. It left her feeling ignored, rejected and invalidated. Shannon felt frustrated and angry, and under her anger was sadness and the fear of losing Eric.
Eric was afraid to lose Shannon as well. While he had a head-in-the-sand approach to conflict, Shannon strategy was to go head-to-head into battle. Sharron’s approach was to push through conflict, and seek resolution as soon as possible in order to feel safe and secure again.
Eric experienced her strategy was confrontational and demanding. Her discomfort with a lack of immediate resolution would end up pushing Eric into overwhelm, which would lead him to stonewall Shannon in order to keep her at bay. Every conflict would engage this pattern sending both of them into a mode of self-protection.
Creating Healthy Habits of Communication
Eric and Shannon started to recognize their opposing strategies to avoid conflict, and how they both contributed to triggering each other. They were able to avoid stonewalling before it happened by using their insights to develop new habits of communication.
One of those habits was understanding that they were both seeking the same thing, and that was to be understood, and avoid the pain of conflict.
Eric learned to recognize the signs of going into emotional overwhelm. Now he calls for a time out, not as a form of punishment, but as a much-needed break in order to calm down and process his feelings. He now sees that his stonewalling only heightened Shannon’s feelings of fear and insecurity, which made her only push harder for a quick resolution.
Now they both agree that before conflict ramps up into angry words, they will take a time-out. If Eric needs to leave the room to calm down, rather than stomping out, slamming doors and stonewalling Shannon for a day or two, he’ll reassure her that he’ll be back in an agreed amount of time, whether that was 5 minutes, 20 minutes or an hour.
Eric’s reassurance that he’ll be back helps Shannon relax trusting that taking a time out is not a form of punishment, but rather Eric’s self-care. She began to trust that taking space helped both of them clear their minds, calm their nervous systems and more effectively seek the resolution they both wanted.
When a couple understands their differences in conflict strategies, they can begin to consider their needs, where those needs come from, and how to get them met.
It’s important to recognize that we are often different than our partner. Understanding our differences will help to bring an end to strategies like stonewalling.
Seeking the help of a relationship coach who specializes in couples work, is your first step in creating the kind of happy and trusting partnership you know you both deserve.
Take the first step towards creating a healthy, happy and trusting relationship by scheduling a Discovery Call with me today.
Together, we will explore new solutions that can bring more love and happiness into your life.
Stay well and love deeply,
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