ERP 217: How to Deal With Stonewalling in Relationship [Transcript]

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Welcome to The Empowered Relationship Podcast, helping you turn relationship challenges into opportunities and setting you up for relationship success. Your host, Dr. Jessica Higgins, is a licensed psychologist and relationship coach who shares valuable tips, tools and resources for you to dramatically improve your relationship.

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Hi, thank you for joining today’s podcast episode. Today’s episode is 217, “How to deal with stonewalling in relationship.” Before we get started, I wanna take a moment and just center in to the whole purpose of why we’re having these conversations on the Empowered Relationship Podcast… And that is that we are talking about principles, dynamics, tips, tools for you to consider to cultivate deeper levels of intimacy and connection in your relationship.

My goal is for you to feel better equipped, better prepared in navigating the terrain of long-lasting intimacy, knowing that there are many times where we might feel even small, or even large disrupts to the flow and the harmony, and really inquiring into deeper layers of what’s happening there… So you have more awareness, understanding, again, so that you can be more intentional and mindful as you’re cultivating the repair and the harmony and the connection. Because really, it’s not about “Is disrupt or is upset gonna happen?” That will happen. Even in the most successful, secure relationships there is disconnect, and it’s how we find our balance and how we get back into connection and the ability to do that is what really is determining long-lasting success in relationship.

So again, the conversations that happen here on the Empowered Relationship podcast are intended to support you in that venture. If you’ve listened to this show for any length of time, you have heard me talk about – I’m on this journey, and I just shared a personal story about a conflict my husband and I had with the people that have subscribed to my email list. So I do my best to bring my own examples, as well as my work with clients, as well as other authors and guests on the show for you to have a fuller voice around what this looks like, and other examples for you to know that you’re not alone.

If you would like access to today’s show notes, or other show notes for that matter, you can visit DrJessicaHiggins.com, click on Podcast and you can find all the shows there. The most recent ones are at the top, and again, today’s episode is 217, “How to deal with stonewalling in relationship.”

The topic for today comes from a recent listener’s question who responded to an email that I was inviting people to share what they’re experiencing in the current pandemic and quarantine, and how I might be better able to support people during this phase… And she had posed a question about how to deal with someone who stonewalls, and how to effectively respond to a partner who does that. I wanted to put a little more attention on this topic. I know I mentioned this question in a couple episodes past, but I wanna give a little more support around what stonewalling is, how it actually manifests in a relationship dynamic, some stories for you to perhaps relate to, some research and some tips for you to consider.

Stonewalling typically occurs when someone is overwhelmed and is flooded. And what I mean by flooded is there’s an over-arousal, and their heart rate is increased, they are releasing stress hormones into the blood system, and maybe even feeling that fight or flight response… So there’s this overwhelm. And when someone’s dealing with that overwhelm, one tactic is to withdraw, to disengage from the dynamic. It can also be to shut down, perhaps verbally, emotionally, and even sometimes physically, removing themselves from the situation.

Now, this can happen subtly by being a little more evasive, where if you’re asking your significant other a really pointed question or a direct invitation to talk about a difficult topic, they’re changing the subject, and they’re being silly, and they may be not really wanting to meet you – that’s a form of disengagement.

Other forms of withdrawal can look like tuning out, spacing out, or turning away, or being busy. Now, these are ways to withdraw, but sometimes its more pronounced form is the stonewalling. That’s where somebody goes stone cold. They put up all these walls, and they’re basically not responsive.

What we’re gonna be talking about today is oftentimes this withdrawal and the stonewalling is a protective move. Again, when somebody is over-aroused, overwhelmed, it’s a way to try to get their balance, or perhaps even protect themselves or protect the relationship. However, if this becomes habitual and the dynamic ensues, it can be extremely dangerous for the couple and the bond. Recently I have been working with a couple – I had my second session with them yesterday – and they have been verging on divorce. They’ve been separated for several weeks, and the wife particularly is at her wits’ end, essentially is what she’s saying. And we were discussing the dynamic, and they had had an incident prior that day.

She was describing having called out to her husband multiple times. And what this brings up for her is feeling ignored, dismissed, unimportant. This mimics many ways in which there have been previous incidences where it’s been extremely painful and it’s been very escalated. I know that this is in its smaller form, but I just wanna say that there’s a lot of context to this dynamic.

So she’s calling out, and the fourth time she’s becoming particularly agitated and frustrated… And when she approaches him, he has his earbuds; he takes them out, and she’s already annoyed, and then she’s like “Okay, that makes sense. I get it, I’m sorry”, and they kind of calibrate and get their balance for a moment or two… And she said “Within minutes I had asked him a question as he was pumping air into a tire”, they were gonna go out to a mountain-biking ride, and she is looking at him and she knows that he can hear her, and he’s not responding. She’s just like “You’ve got to be kidding me.” And as I asked her to talk about what was going on for her — because typically, her move is that she will get louder. If you’re not responding to me, I’m gonna up the ante; I’m gonna get louder so you do hear me, and you do respond. It’s a way to elicit a response. And when she’s not getting it, I asked her to tap into and explore that with me and sense into that emotional space. After some process, she got to the place of like “I feel so insignificant. I feel this small”, as she gestured her fingers to indicate an inch, and she said “I don’t feel important.”

Then, as I asked her to get even deeper, she said “I feel a sense of abandonment, like where is he?” So as she’s getting vulnerable in talking about this, her husband’s seeing her sadness and feeling sadness in response, and that empathy. But again, this is not their normal dynamic, because what she was saying to me is “I can tell  you this, I can tell him through you, and I feel safe here. But there’s been so much that’s happened I don’t feel safe to turn to him with this, or to even hear his response.” So let me pause then on her part.

For his part, he often is like “Whoa, whoa, whoa…” Because when he hears her approach, it often is strong, loud, perhaps even very assertive, and he gets on his heels, or as she would say “His hackles are up.” And he perhaps feels his own emotion and what that brings up in him based on his background – and I can talk about that in a moment – there’s a level of overwhelm. And he also described wanting to minimize the conflict. He said “If I don’t engage, we don’t have conflict, so it’s a way for me to protect us, essentially, in that I know we both have strong personalities, and we can both express ourselves, and that could escalate very quickly.” So it’s a way for me to minimize the conflict.

One of the things that’s happening in this dynamic is when let’s say the husband in this dynamic has had a painful past, where he has been either ridiculed, name-called, and gotten a lot of negative feedback growing up, and particularly what that experience was like for him… And it was very traumatic; when he experiences someone he loves come at him in this strong, negative tone, it again signals all those alarm bells. So again, he’s being aroused to this pain, and it’s not even specific and isolated to this one interaction. It’s informed by our experience in the past and all that we’ve known emotionally around that.

I could say a lot more about his emotional experience, but I’d like to pivot back to the pattern. So the wife experiences some emotional distress and not being able to engage her husband, like “Where are you? Why aren’t you responding?” and interprets that or fears that she doesn’t matter, she’s insignificant, she’s being abandoned… And her reaction to that is to get loud, and to perhaps engage him in a more critical, critique way. And again, her tone is elevated. He hears that message from that loud, a little more assertive, maybe even negative tone, and then his alarm bells are going off. And again, he has an experience to that.

And since we’re really early in our therapeutic relationship, I’m still getting to know his pain, but it has to do with “I’m failing you. I’m not good enough. How come you don’t see all the good things that I’m doing? Why are you mad at me?”, these type of fears and emotions on a deeper level. But again, the reaction to that is “I need to contain this, and it starts to feel overwhelming, because not only is my wife mad at me, but it reminds of  all the times that I’ve had my dad yelling at me and calling me names, and what that felt like.” So there’s a lot of pain that’s getting activated in that moment, and therefore one of the ways to try to manage that is to withdraw, or to start to shut down.

More often than not when we look at relational patterns, what we see is when one partner is attempting to engage their partner, and perhaps their partner is feeling overwhelmed, feeling some level of threat, pain, and losing their emotional balance. When that partner that’s attempting to engage sees their significant other withdrawn, often doesn’t have the information around really what’s going on with them. And what they tend to do, particularly if there’s previous pain and insecurity, will likely interpret that withdrawal as dismissive and rejecting.

This morning I met with a client who has struggled with this dynamic for many years. He had a long-term significant relationship of 13 or 16 years, I can’t really remember… And their relationship dissolved several years ago (like four years ago). And he’s had a few dating and short-term relationship experiences since then, and this is something that he encounters, because this is one of his strategies to manage his emotional world. Now, if you’ve been listening to this show recently, I’ve had a couple episodes featuring the topic of men and emotional intelligence… So I will put those two shows on today’s show notes, if you’re interested in checking those out.

So given that he is a man, and the environment that he grew up in – he didn’t have a father that was emotionally attuned, and I would even wonder if he had some level of Aspberger’s or autistic features/tendencies… And his mother was more contained as well emotionally, but what he experienced is that he had to hold his emotional world very close, which a lot of men do, because they get the message of “It’s not okay to be sad, it’s not okay to be vulnerable. Be strong, suck it up.” And then he had these other layers with his parents. And what he often felt was that it was scary to reveal his emotional world, because his previous experience had told him it was not gonna be met, not gonna be seen, not gonna be validated, and perhaps might be attacked or criticized. So what he’s experienced in his adult life is he does do this withdrawal, or he does disengage too a bit, or he holds what he’s feeling close and not revealing it, and then therefore the person that he’s in relationship is kind of left to wonder… And if there’s any insecurity or fear on their part, it’s easy to interpret that as a negative cue.

So what will then happen is they’ll accuse him of whatever they’re interpreting or whatever they’re suspecting, and then he feels that much more unsafe, because it feels so inaccurate to his experience, and he feels largely misunderstood, and doesn’t feel at all welcomed to share his truth about what he’s experiencing and feeling emotionally.

To exemplify this in a short example, he shared this morning on a Zoom call – it was a professional, work-related interaction; however, he does have a personal history with this person… And he had been cleared that he did not want to dive into the details of this particular project. That he didn’t have all the information, and he wasn’t prepared to go there. And the backdrop of this too is that he’s had a tremendous amount of stress in the last few weeks, enormous, and he just doesn’t have the resources, and he’s feeling a little strained in his emotional capacity, not feeling as resourced as he normally is.

So he felt like he set this boundary with this person, and for whatever reason – either she didn’t hear him, or perhaps she was super-enthusiastic about what she wanted to do and her agenda, and kept inviting and engaging in those details… And he felt increasingly frustrated that she wasn’t seemingly respecting his preference or his boundary of not wanting to go there on that call. And so he started to get elevated in his tone, and then she reacted and was like “Why are you yelling?” And he was like “I’m not yelling.” So they ended up ending the call, and they’ve been trying to get clear on what happened.

We were talking about it this morning, and helping him identify his emotional needs, and being able to give a clear cue, so that someone who is relating to him has a little more information, and therefore won’t be left to their own devices and be reacting to their fear of rejection or whatever it might be.

Stereotypically, in heterosexual relationships women will comment that men don’t have the same level of emotional capacity or empathy… And in Love Sense, Dr. Susan Johnson is referencing a study that was conducted at the University of Texas. Essentially, what the study – I’m not gonna quote this exactly right, but they were asking participants, men and women, to look at a tape and infer what they imagined these people were feeling based on what they were expressing and describing. They compared their ability to identify the emotion and what they observed, and it turned out that men and women had equally the same ability to identify and empathize with the emotions that they observed.

Dr. Susan Johnson in the book Love Sense, in response to the sex differences related to empathy, comments that women are more likely and better able to verbalize their feelings and needs than are men. They have more training; mothers talk to little girls in more elaborate ways about their emotions, and men, when they’re anxious about their bond with a partner, are more likely to become physically antagonistic or to withdraw and evade.

In day-to-day conflicts in love relationships women tend to be more vocal demanders, while men tend to use silence to distance and defend. But even this difference tends to disappear, where it is the man who wants to change in the relationship.

And I think I have said this in previous podcasts, that men do have the capacity – and it is my experience that if a man has the opportunity to slow down and perhaps have a little more time to access his inner world and the space for that, that he  will go there, and there is a rich depth there to be had. So I love that there’s research to support this.

I have noticed this dynamic between my husband and I, even very early on, if we were experiencing a conflict, or there was some challenge. I can remember one story – I think we might have been in the first few years of dating, and I remember we were sitting in my living room; he was on the couch, I might have been on the couch with him, or the chair next to him, and we were having a heated discussion. And granted, it was a little later in the evening, and I was kind of amped up. I had all the clarity around what I was thinking was going on, and I was ready to talk about it and address it, and hopefully resolve it… Whereas my now-husband, then boyfriend, was looking as though he was gonna fall asleep. And I’m like “Are you kidding me?” I was like “Is he joking? I don’t even know what’s going on right now.” And he was really tired and he was disengaging. And whether or not that was conscious or subconscious of his disengagement through being that tired and wanting to fall asleep…

But truthfully, this is something I’ve known him to do – he will get overwhelmed, or he has told me in the past “I am wanting to protect us,  because I don’t wanna say something that I’m gonna regret or that I don’t even mean out of frustration or annoyance or anger even. So  I very much wanna contain that.” So there have been numerous times, and even still to this day, there’s times where if I can tell he is not in a place, if I push it, it’s likely I’m gonna hit a wall. It’s gonna be a dead end. And yeah, I could push it and create more conflict, but the pattern — there’s likely very little good that’s gonna come from that pushing him to get him engaged when he’s overwhelmed or needing to slow down.

But going back to that moment when I was like “Oh my goodness, what’s happening here?!”, I noticed myself feeling a little hurt, feeling a little rejected, and all the things that might have come up in that moment… But I had done enough work and had done enough on myself to recognize my patterns, to go into feeling maybe even abandoned, and fear of abandonment, and to manage my reactions. So I kind of suspended that negative interpretation and the impulse to react and try to get him to engage. And what would then happen would be is not in that moment – and in this example it was likely the next day, when we both had our emotional balance, we could have a conversation in a softer, safer place, where we could engage in a more revealing, vulnerable, authentic way, and talk about our respective emotional needs.

And truthfully, the added component here too is that my husband is a little more introverted and tends to want to reflect on his emotions and what he’s feeling, so he can get clear to then verbalize it. He’s not often clear. Even if I have been really pushing or needing some response from him, he’s like “I need to get clear. I don’t wanna just say something to say something. I need more time to really connect with what’s real for me.”

So at the end of the day I want what’s real, and I wanna connect with what’s true for him, and sometimes that means slowing down and having a little more time to land in that emotionally-balanced, safer conversation. And it doesn’t happen perhaps on my preferred timeline, but the end result is connection.

Dr. John Gottman has done so much to offer significant research in regards to these difficult patterns, and he talks a lot about the four horsemen: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt. And when talking about stonewalling more specifically, he offers research that men are consistently more likely to stonewall than women. They will withdraw emotionally from conflict discussions, while women remain emotionally engaged. 85% of stonewallers studied in the Love Lab were men.

Whereas when women stonewall, it is quite predictive of divorce. Male stonewalling is very upsetting for women, increasing their physiological arousal, like heart rate etc. and intensifies their pursuit of the issue. And this is what we have been talking about in this really destructive, painful pattern. Because when we look at this from an attachment standpoint around people being engaged and responsive to one another, when the partner that is initiating engagement and then the partner that’s overwhelmed and perhaps withdrawing or even using stonewalling, the partner on the receiving end is often at a great loss, is frustrated, might make attempts to engage and protest the withdrawal… Like, “Where did you go?!”, elevate the voice, try to engage. And then when there’s still a lack of engagement, there’s a level of distress that can occur, of like “You’re gone. I kind of collapse and I give up.” And over time this can be so damaging to the relational connection and bond.

Dr. Susan Johnson in Love Sense talks about this deadly dynamic. She says “This is when a partner turns to stone. Still. Silent. And completely inaccessible. This is a total negation of the bond. There is no engagement. One of the rules of attachment is that any response is better than none. I must have heard the cry; I fight to get a reaction. Any reaction. A thousand times. When we stonewall, the most extreme version of dismissal and non-responsiveness, we most likely do so in order to cut off our emotions. We freeze and retreat into numbness. But when one dancer completely leaves the floor, the dance is no more. This catapults the remaining dancer into a terror of insignificance and abandonment.”

Dr. John Gottman offers an anecdote to stonewalling. This is to essentially stop and self-soothe. And I think this is particularly important because if we’re looking at the overwhelm, there’s really no way to forge ahead if we are overwhelmed and over-aroused… Because as we become over-aroused, overwhelmed and flooded, we decrease the ability to process information. We’re in that oftentimes fight, flight or freeze; we don’t see, we don’t hear correctly. We’re also likely to be more defensive, more protective, reactive, protesting, and we also reduce our ability to creative problem-solve and to listen and to empathize. We’re not able to use our prefrontal cortex, which is to recognize emotion in others, being able to attune to them and respond to them, as well as using our higher levels of faculty of thinking.

Research from the Love Lab:

“In one of our longitudinal studies we interrupted arguing couples after 15 minutes, and told them we needed to adjust the equipment. We asked them not to talk about their issue and just read magazines for half an hour.

When they started talking about their issue again, their heart rates were significantly lower, and their interaction more positive and productive.”

Therefore, my first recommendation and tip to offer is 1) slow down. As you notice the tension rising and the escalation of the pattern, slowing down will help you assess. And 2) send a clear cue. Both people can do this. The person that’s on their heels, perhaps feeling overwhelmed, can say “I notice I’m feeling overwhelmed” or “I’m on my heels. I need to take a minute.”

Or the person that’s noticing that they’re trying to engage their partner and maybe getting a little more intense about it or anxious about it. “I notice I’m working really hard to get you to engage. I’m starting to worry that you’re turning away from me.”

Again, we don’t always have access to these words, so sometimes it’s helpful to talk about this ahead of time and recognize the repetitive pattern and what are the easy, clear signals that can indicate “Oh, I’m starting to get upset.” Or “Oh, I’m starting to get overwhelmed.”

This was one of the things that in my session with the couple that I had mentioned yesterday, when I was asking her to respond to her husband’s empathy, and she was like “I don’t trust — there’s been so many negative interactions we’ve had, and I do not feel safe to let him in.” So when I asked her to describe what that part of her that felt vulnerable and felt scared to trust – what does that part need? And she was describing “If this occurs for us again, I would love to just have some clear cue to help me know that he’s on his heels, or that his hackles are up.” Because what this can do is help people recognize “Oh, we’re doing that thing that gets us into trouble… How do we calibrate, how do we find our balance?” and again, the recommendation often here is that 20 minutes at least (at the minimum) helps us regulate our nervous system, helps us get our balance more.

I had a client I was working with a couple of weeks ago, and they were describing a forced break, similar to the research in the Love Lab, where one of them had a call that they had to hop on… So there was a meeting one of them needed to go to, and so it forced this break, and when they came back and revisited the conversation, they were much more able to be productive, positive and constructive in that dialogue. And that describes number three – get emotionally balanced and perhaps self-soothed to get regulated. So number one, again, would be to slow down. Number two would be send a clear cue, and perhaps take a break.

Number three, get emotionally balanced and self-soothed to get regulated. And again, we often need to do that in an individual space; we can’t be stimulated by the very thing that we’re feeling challenged by. And many people have a difficult time with this, because it feels like more abandonment or it feels more distancing… But if there’s an agreement to come back at a certain time or to have an agreement of like “Let’s check in and see how we are”, that there is a real priority to staying engaged and staying with the process. So the goal is to, again, get us to a place where we can resolve this.

This leads to number four, which is to really do your best to prioritize that soft, safe place, where you can talk about your respective emotional worlds from that more vulnerable place. And we’re not talking about the other person’s behavior, all the things that they do that upset us; it’s more “Here’s the underbelly.”

I know this can be extremely difficult and painful, that’s why I really invite getting support if you notice that these patterns have taken hold in your relationship. If you’re interested in getting support in the way of coaching, I wanna invite you to perhaps consider engaging in a free strategy session with me to explore the option of how I might be able to support you in getting out of these patterns and developing more connection and more productive patterns in your relationship. You can do that by visiting DrJessicaHiggins.com click on the tab Work With Me, and you can find more about that there.

Also, I have a free resource for you, Shifting Criticism Into Connected Communication. It’s a free guide that shows what a complaint or a critical statement looks like in response to a more constructive, balanced request. Oftentimes at the base or that deeper layer of the criticism is an unmet need or a desire or a fear.

I give a lot of support to help you begin to recognize and build awareness around how those can be very different approaches. You can access the Shifting Criticism Into Connected Communication free guide on today’s show notes. Again, that can be found on DrJessicaHiggins.com, click on Podcast and you can find today’s episode, 217, “How to deal with stonewalling in relationship”, and again, the guide is Shifting Criticism Into Connected Communication.

Until next time, I hope you take great care.

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Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching