Why the Best Couples Never Keep the Peace: How to Cope with Stonewalling

Kelly E.

Unhealthy peace is just as bad as unhealthy conflict

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I’m sitting in silence right now. It’s completely peaceful. A calm, happy kind of peaceful but many people live with a different kind of peace — a peace where they avoid conflict in their relationships and chose silence. But according to the experts, this kind of peace-keeping is not as "peaceful" as we think.

Conflict resolution expert, Priya Parker says “Unhealthy peace can be as threatening to human connection as unhealthy conflict.”

Unhealthy peace damages our relationships. It doesn’t “keep the peace”, it keeps the annoyances, the hurt, the unmet needs, the buried resentment. Unhealthy peace often becomes stonewalling and stonewalling our spouse is not the same as healthy peace.

If you're facing this kind of peace-keeping in your relationship, here's how to deal with it:

When silence is a wall

Stonewalling is when one partner (or both) avoids conflict by withdrawing. They turn away from their partner mentally and/or physically and make them feel blocked and unheard. They leave the issues unresolved.

My friend, Katie, realised after her separation that even though there was a lot of conflict, much of it — from her husband's side—was left unsaid. She knew a conflict raged in his head but instead of calmly stating his needs, he chose to push them down. Instead of discussing things that bothered him, he silently fumed about them. And, instead of hearing out her concerns he stonewalled.

“Can we talk about this?" she'd ask.

“Now’s not a good time,” he'd say. But there was never a good time.

He tuned her out, made himself busy in the shed or with work. He turned away and just stop engaging. Eventually she started to do the same thing. They both stonewalled to keep the peace, but it was an uncomfortable peace.

Katie didn’t realise what it meant at the time, or how it played a part in the destruction of their relationship, but according to relationship expert Dr. John Gottman, stonewalling can be as damaging as out right criticism and contempt.

Stonewalling puts up an emotional wall between you and your spouse. Near the end of her relationship she could feel the wall, almost as if it was a real concrete object between them. She knew it kept them separate. But the opposite, talking about things, felt like too much for both of them. So she left.

Stonewalling often happens when you feel overwhelmed by the emotions of your spouse. Initially, Katie was very emotionally expressive with her husband. As a more introverted person, Katie's extraverted expression felt way too big for him. Gottman calls this “emotional flooding.”

Flooding requires higher floodwalls

If you and your partner have been arguing for a while, they might start to stonewall as a coping strategy.

It becomes a nasty cycle. You try to talk about an issue and how you're feeling. Your partner pretends they can’t hear you or walks away. You know what happens next — it doesn’t go down well.

You feel unheard and frustrated, so you get louder. This makes the stonewalling partner more flooded— sound familiar?— and they withdraw further.

You get into this spiralling pattern. They withdraw, you get frustrated, they withdraw more. It can easily escalate into a full-blown conflict where both of you storm off and nothing is resolved.

After months or years of fighting, Gottman says it’s understandable that one partner stonewalls to cope. The problem is it becomes a habit. A habit that often spells the end of the relationship. If nothing is getting resolved, how can you move forward?

Breaking down the walls

The solution to stonewalling is learning to talk and listen better, right? It’s not really as easy as that. Have you ever tried to listen when you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed or stressed? It's pretty impossible.

If someone is feeling flooded the only thing to do is stop the conversation.

Nothing gets solved, heard, or talked about calmly if one person has stress hormones filling their blood-stream. When you're stressed and overwhelmed your heart races and your body goes into full flight or fight mode. Emotional flooding creates a physiological reaction that takes a good twenty minutes to calm.

We need to take a break.

If your partner (or you) stonewall often, take the time to agree with each other, before it happens, that it’s okay to take a break.

You can’t just walk off — it’s important that you agree on how to stop for twenty minutes or it looks like more stonewalling. Even knowing that you’ve agreed to this (and what you’ll both say to let your spouse know you need it) is a huge step in reducing stonewalling.

You can then take twenty minutes to actively calm down and come back to the discussion.

It’s important that:

  • Partners respect each other when they say they need to take a break.
  • You use the full twenty minutes to actively calm down, breath deeply, take a walk, think calm thoughts. (Thinking angry or victim thoughts — “I don’t need this crap!” — just makes you more fired up.)
  • You learn to self-soothe. Being able to calm yourself down is an important life skill and benefits your relationship.
  • You try to balance the negative and positive interactions. You can’t expect to get rid of stonewalling if all of your interactions are full of negativity. Gottman says a 5:1 ratio is what we need to aim for for a healthy relationship: five positive interactions to one negative one.
  • You avoid criticism, defensiveness, and contempt (you need to learn to deal with issues in a more constructive way).
  • if your partner stonewalls, you learn to soften your approach to talking about big issues.

Stonewalling is not a small thing. Gottman calls it one of the four horseman — the others are criticism, defensiveness, and contempt. These four communication styles can mean the end of a relationship is close.

Stonewalling may feel like peace-keeping, but it back fires and creates a “unhealthy peace” that threatens connection.

Katie and her husband eventually recognised they both had a tendency to stonewall. They got back together and are slowly learning to speak up when they’re overwhelmed and engage in healthy “conflict” discussions, even when that feels hard to do.

If you've noticed unhealthy peace-keeping in your relationship, talking gently about it is the first step.

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