Are You A Stonewaller?

April 5, 2023 3:38 PM
· Updated
May 11, 2023 2:55 PM
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Have you ever been in difficult conversation with your partner and found yourself not responding or feeling like you don’t know what to do or to say? Maybe your partner has accused you of

giving them the silent treatment


not listening

being cold

being unavailable

being distant

Maybe you’re surprised because you think of yourself asa very caring partner who has no intent of hurting your partner, but you findyourself not knowing what to do or say, or how to respond.  You feel like a deer in the headlights –stuck in place by the emotions you are experiencing coming from your partner andwithin yourself.


Here’s how it sometimes plays out in real life:

·        John and Sue are in the middle of a difficult conversation about finances

·        Sue is expressing her anger at not being consulted on a major purchase

·        John is uncomfortable with conflict and is flooded internally as Sue is speaking

·        Sue see’s what she identifies as a “checked out” look and asks:  What’s wrong?  What are you feeling?  

·        John tries to answer but the answers seem to be wrong and seem to make things worse. John becomes silent.

·        Sue is angered by the silence and raises her voice to try and get a response

·        John becomes more flooded – feeling almost paralyzed

·        Sue feels abandoned, alone, and insignificant


If you find yourself to be more like John when it comes to handling conflict, you might be what we call a “stonewaller”.  You’re stuck in place.  Frozen. Much like when an opossum plays dead. While it may be perceived as a form of manipulation, “stonewalling” has been demonstrated to be related to the physiological reaction taking place within the one who stonewalls.

John Gottman and his team of researchers has conducted an extensive amount of research on communication, particularly within couples.  They have been able to identify some key elements related to stonewalling:

1.      Stonewalling is one of the 4 Horsemen (destructive communication patterns) which can result in separation if not addressed.

2.      Stonewalling isn’t an intentional act.  It happens when the amygdala perceives the body needs to protect itself from perceived danger.  

3.      Stonewalling is accompanied by a heart rate over 100 bpm, strained breathing, and feeling mentally paralyzed.

4.      Stonewalling is destructive if not remedied.

There are may ways to clue you into moments when stonewalling may occur (Silverstein, 2022)

·        Heart rate rises

·        Holding your breath or irregular shallow breathing

·        Not listening as well as usual

·        Confusion and difficulty finding words

·        Getting louder and edgier

·        Feeling defensive

·        Muscles tense up

·        “Deer in the headlights”

·        Clenched fists

·        Griding teeth

·        Facial muscles constrict

·        Shoulders feel tight

·        Nausea

·        Light-headed


Managing the symptoms of stonewalling before they get too far is essential to curbing its impact on your relationship.  Here’s how John and Sue could have handled it:

John:  Sue, I notice that I’m feeling defensive, and my heart rate is rising.  I’m not able to clearly hear and understand what’s going on right now.  

Sue:  What can Ido to help?

John:  Would it be OK if we take a 20-minute break from this conversation so I can go for a brisk walk and re-set?

Sue:  OK, but it’s really important to me that we come back to this conversation.

John:  I can see how important it is, which is why I need to re-set.  I will be better able to hear you and participate after my re-set.

Sue:  I appreciate that.


1.       Pay attention to what is happening in your body.

2.      Finda way to let your partner know that you are feeling flooded and need to take a break so that you can participate in a more meaningful way.

3.      Return to the conversation as agreed upon.  Not returning to the conversation will anger your partner and lead to additional pain and frustration.  20 minutes is generally what it takes for your body to re-set – as long as you’re not ruminating on the conversation during that time.

If you find that you need or want help with managing stonewalling, feel free to give us a call at 352-448-9120.