(Miss the beginning of this series? Check out the other posts!)
When my brother-in-law was in college, he and some buddies decided to play a joke on one of their friends. They were on their way home from a road trip and while one of their buddies was asleep, they parked in front of a wall and, in unison, they all started screaming. So, the poor guy woke up in a car and saw a wall just feet in front of him. In terror, he joined in the screaming until he realized they weren’t moving. Wow.
When he told me that story, I laughed until I cried. As mean as it was, I had to respect the creativity as such a prank would probably have never occurred to me. How would you feel if you woke up to a stone wall in your face? My guess is that poor, sleeping guy thought he was seconds from meeting his Maker.
We can’t move through walls. The purpose of walls is to keep people, animals, water, wind, etc. from moving into or out of an area. Walls are built around homes to protect them from outside factors such as rain, cold air, hot air, snow, and danger. The nature of walls is to keep some objects (people, possessions, etc.) in and other objects or beings out.
Therefore, the act of relational stonewalling occurs when one or both partners in a relationship purposely cut off communication for the purpose of shutting the other out completely. This can happen because one or both partners are feeling frustrated, angry, misunderstood, or as a desire to punish the other person. When fighting continues without resolution, a person can’t take on any more insults and the argument starts to feel like a ride on the Disney teacups – going round and round. It’s easy to think, “What’s the point? I may as well just stop talking now because nothing is getting accomplished.” Have you ever gotten to the point in an argument that it felt easier to just stop communicating then to try to work through the issue at hand? I certainly have.
One reason stonewalling is dangerous is because it’s actually an easy way out. Once you’ve done it, it is easier to do it again. Then before long, nothing is ever worked through because shutting down has become your default setting. “Something uncomfortable and frustrating is happening? Time to shut down! He or she can’t get to me if I’m not up and running.” When people are in a lot of physical pain, sometimes their bodies pass out because they cannot handle it. When people are in a lot of emotional pain, sometimes they will shut themselves down emotionally as a way of keeping the pain and frustration out of their hearts. (We actually see this dynamic graphed as the result of one of the scales on The PAIR Test when some couples take it.)
Another reason stonewalling is dangerous is because it cuts off your relationship’s life’s blood: communication. Without communication relationships cannot sustain emotional intimacy. If I could not see into Eric’s heart and he could not see into mine, we would begin to drift apart. When a couple is not connected at the heart, the door is cracked open for infidelity. We are built for relationships. If we are not getting our needs met in our havens of peace (i.e., homes), we become tempted to find solace in others. But, when we confide in members of the opposite sex, feelings develop, and when feelings develop, an extramarital affair can develop quicker than you might think.
Below is an example of a stonewalling situation:
Steve has been doing landscaping yard work all day knowing that it would make his wife happy, but asks his wife, Claudia, to help him pick the debris up out of the yard and bag it before sundown (because bagging the debris is much easier with two people). Claudia has dinner plans with a friend, but promises Steve she will be home in plenty of time to help with the yard work before the sun goes down so they can pick up the debris in the light. Claudia gets to the restaurant with her friend just seconds after a crowd of college students show up. After waiting a long time to be seated, waiting again for a takeout order, and getting caught up in conversation, Claudia did not return home until the last few moments before the sun went down. Steve is obviously frustrated. Let’s listen in:
Steve: “Um, you ready? I thought you were going to be home in an hour – that’s when you said, you’d be home by. You’ve been gone more than an hour; in fact, you’ve been gone two hours.”
Claudia: “I’m sorry.”
Steve: “No you’re not.”
Claudia: “Excuse me?!?! How can you tell if I’m sorry or not? Besides, there’s plenty of light left!”
Steve: “No, there’s not – the sun’s nearly down! Next time, when you say you’ll be home – you better be home! You need to have integrity with what you say you’ll do!”
Claudia: “Shove off, Jerk! You won’t get by with talking to me like this! Keep it up and you’ll be hungry for at least a month.”
Steve: “Sounds good to me. See you in a month… maybe.”
Steve then proceeds to drop the bag of leaves. He heads in the house, packs a bag, and drives to a local hotel for the night – or, rather, for several nights. At that moment, it was easier for him to push her out of his life than for him to try to work through the real issue.
Dr. John Gottman’s book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail… and How You Can Make Yours Last includes a test called, “Self Test: Stonewalling.” I would recommend purchasing this book and taking this test to see if you have a tendency to stonewall others.
Are you in a relationship currently where one or both of you turn to stones when conflict arises? If so, I would recommend talking about your stonewalling tendencies before you get into a fight. Discuss ways you and your sweetheart will handle those situations when they arise. For example, when you see that your argument is escalating with no resolution in sight, decide that you and your honey will take a fifteen minute break (or longer, if you need to get to work, etc.) and then come back together and discuss it after cooling off and clearing your minds. You can commit to jumping off this crazy cycle before allowing it damage your communication.
What has been your experience thus far with stonewalling? How have you seen it play out in others’ relationships?