Yes, the fourth horseman of the apocalypse of your relationship, stone-walling, is as lethal as Contempt.
Contempt and criticism are both active ways of undermining connection in your relationship. Defensiveness and stone-walling are the re-active counter-parts. Stone-walling is something we tend to do in reaction to feeling hurt and the thicker the walls we put up around us, the deeper the hurt was. But may be the habit of blending out your partner’s existence has simply been going on for a long time?
From the receiving end, once your partner goes into this form of shut-down, you can be certain that any further attempt to sort out the dispute will fail. Stone-walling can be super infuriating and often only achieves to create anger and helplessness on the other side. But it is also a sign of overwhelm. Once the ‘system’ gets flooded with emotions, some people blow up and others shut down.
If you are the one who stone-walls
If stone-walling is what you do than it is important for you to learn how to read the internal signs of overwhelm. You might become aware of an intense feeling of helplessness, rising heat or an increase in heart-rate. There can be a loss of words of what you want to say. Sometimes you might not even be able to remember what your partner actually said that made you feel like this. All of these are signs of your system being over-activated and needing a break. Stepping back before this happens is really the most important thing to do. And that might mean you need to raise your awareness of where you are headed in an interaction with your partner.
Slow things down
It takes us about 20 minutes to settle down from an agitated place to one of greater inner peace and capacity to come back ‘online’ . You have to step back to achieve this. Once you are by yourself, there are a number of things you can do to help yourself get more settled. The best strategy to calm down an activated system is slow exhalation. The lack of oxygen signals the brain that it doesn’t need to activate the fight/flight response. It can also be important to have a caring and compassionate little self-talk with your inner child.
Can you change perspective?
If you feel hurt, scared or hard-done-by, it helps to tell yourself that you are okay as a person. Sometimes, I just say to myself: ‘I am okay, he is okay. We are good people, meaning well, loving each other… just getting stuck.’ This helps me to move out of the victim place into a kind of ‘meta-view’. After all, I am the one who tells my clients that what we fight about has mostly to do with the past and only a little bit with the present.’
If you can achieve a shift in your viewpoint toward the good intentions of all around, you will find your ability to solve the issue sooner will increase.
Talk it through together when you are in a good place
For both of you it is important to understand that stone-walling is essentially a defense mechanism that can turn into a habit.
You need to be willing to grow and change to get out of this habit. Can you sit together as a couple, acknowledge the pain on both sides and come up with some strategies to help? I know this is a big ask, because admitting you are doing it takes strength. For the partner on the receiving end it is equally important to validate the need to shut down, though. Once you get past this point, you can talk about what might help.
If you are on the receiving end of stone-walling
Understand the need to protect themselves as your partner’s driver for stone-walling. Don’t underestimate the power of the brain! This is a strategy that might have been life-saving during a dangerous childhood experience with abusive parents! Where-ever it comes from, it was meaningful at the time to shut down.
Having said that, how can you help your partner become aware of them getting triggered? What signs to you notice and can you share that in a quiet moment and offer some ideas of what you both might do in that moment? Can you step back when you notice the agitation? Could you discuss that it might be more helpful to set a particular time to have a difficult conversation? As hard as it may be, it is important to grow beyond reactivity if you want to help your partner change to a more workable response in conflict situations. You need to be willing to do this without falling into the trap of using one of the other three defense mechanisms.
Slow down and practice
The dance between two people who are in conflict is always so complex, that I struggle each time when I try to write about it. There are endless variations available to us to make or break an attempt at conflict solving. I guess, I want to help you increase your awareness about some of the main mechanisms that might kick in as you get activated into defense-mode. This hopefully helps both of you to increase your willingness to remain open, honest and caring toward yourself and your partner. Always know that most people do things with good intent. And most conflicts are fed by a painful past and not by maliciousness. There is a wonderful quote I had on my white board here in the counselling practice for some time now: