Stonewalling is a warning sign that your relationship is ailing.
Have you ever watched a child try to get attention from their mom or dad?
“Pay attention to me.”
“Look at me.”
“Mommy, daddy, watch me.”
But what happens if the child’s attachment figure is unavailable and unresponsive? The child will experience distress.
It doesn’t matter if you are 5 months old or 45 years. There are still two basic responses to an unavailable attachment figure.
When our romantic partner is unresponsive and unavailable, we protest. We act like an infant banging a rattle on the side of the crib. We make as much noise as possible to try and get attention. As adults, we do this by becoming critical, or we make excessive attempts to reestablish a connection.
And if the consistent response is being ignored or dismissed, the child curls up into a ball and hides in the corner. As an adult, we will stop fighting for emotional connection and give up on the relationship altogether.
Despair has set in.
A couple was asked to demonstrate this scenario by having one partner intentionally be unresponsive.
Here’s what it looked like:
- Angela: Hey. Hey. [Looking at her partner, trying to get his attention]
- Brendan: [On his phone, not looking at her at all]
- Angela: Hey, I have something I want to talk about. Um, something at work… are you listening? Hey, babe. Love? I’m super upset about something at work and need to talk to you. I can text you. Are you on Facebook? [Touches his back and sighs heavily]
- Brendan: [Continues to look at his phone and is unresponsive]
- Angela: Hey
This occurred in about 10 seconds. At the end of the demonstration, here is what Angela said when she was asked what she noticed in her body.
Angela: I… um… felt a lot of tension. I was frantic. Panicky. I became super anxious, even though I knew this was an exercise. And towards the end I just felt helpless.
This prolonged sense of turning away is what Dr. Gottman calls Stonewalling.
Everyone withdraws from a relationship when we are feeling hurt, or fearful of saying the wrong thing. This pause allows us to get creative about how to solve the problem.
But consistent withdrawal is toxic. Most romantic partners do not understand the profound impact distancing has on a bond.
Greg: “I don’t get why she is so pissed with me. I wish I could just shrug off her blaming, but I can’t. I need time to recover. Why doesn’t she get that?”
While Greg is being honest about the internal world of a stonewaller, he also neglects to mention one important fact: that he never wants to resume the discussion, because the emotions he feels are too overwhelming.
If either spouse refuses to communicate when conflict arises, it can be hard to heal a marriage. – Dr. Gottman
Silence is Deafening
How can doing nothing be so triggering?
When looking at relationships from an attachment lens, this type of response is seen as a threat to survival. Psychologist Ed Tronick demonstrates the effect of stonewalling in a landmark study between mothers and infant called The Still Face Experiment.
This brilliant baby protests the emotional connection to her mother in a variety of ways. He points – he screams – he aggressively moves around in his chair. When these attempts fail, the baby withdraws by moving his face and body away. After a few moments, he starts to wail in a panic. It’s difficult to witness.
When the researcher signals the end of the experiment, the mother smiles and comforts the baby, who rapidly regains his emotional balance and happily re-engages her.
This Still Face experiment applies to our adult relationships too. Each time a partner turns away from connection, a response is not dissimilar to the baby shown above.
The Avoidant Stonewaller
Dr. Gottman’s research highlights that 85% of stonewallers are men. This is due to physiological differences. Men flood with emotion easier than women and struggle to recover as quickly. Men tend to be more avoidant in their attachment styles than women, and stonewalling is the ultimate avoidant strategy.