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.
Stonewalling tends to come from good intentions. The stonewaller is trying not to make anything worse, even though their behavior sends the unintended message of disapproval and emotional distance. The purpose of stonewalling is to self-soothe because they are overwhelmed by the negative emotions.
Stonewallers typically have a history of making things worse when trying to solve problems…which is why they have the learned behavior of shutting down.
Demanding and Withdrawing
The toxic cycle in which one partner becomes critical and the other stonewalls is a predictor of divorce. It goes like this:
The more you feel criticized, the more you turn away. The more you turn away, the more your partner attacks. Your heart rate escalates, and you’re scared to say anything for the fear of making it worse.
This is what happens when Miguel comes home from work.
- Jane: You’re late again! And you forgot to pick up the groceries.
- Miguel: I did. [Thinks to himself, this is never going to stop. If I tell her I just forgot, she’ll explode. It’s not worth it. Just keep your mouth shut.]
- Jane: So typical.
- Miguel: [Looks away, and stonewalls by not replying.]
- Jane: [Heart rate increases.] You never care about our family.
Miguel may be physically in the room, but he has emotionally disappeared from the conversation. This is done to protect himself from Jane’s harsh criticism so that he can calm down. Unfortunately, the message the partner receives from the behavior is, I am withdrawing from any meaningful interaction with you.
Jane’s distress is amplified by the confusion of having Miguel both physically present and emotionally absent. When stonewalling becomes a habit, it creates a sense of helplessness in the other partner. This is why she attacks even more.
The Other Side of the Wall
When your partner is stonewalling you, you may feel judged, or that your partner is cold, detached, or superior. Since your partner is unresponsive, you feel they don’t care about your needs or feelings. It’s as if they’ve already abandoned you, even though they are still in the room.
This is where you may become even more critical, and protest for emotional connection. This will push them farther away. Instead, give them space, and then revisit the issue later when you can be gentle. This should always be the way you start the conflict conversation.
Ask them what they need, so you can talk about this in a way they can work with you on it.
Remedies to Stonewalling
Stonewalling is the last horse of Dr. Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It takes enough time for the negativity formed by the first three to become so overwhelming that stonewalling is a form of escape.