Relationship researcher John Gottman, Ph.D, was the first to apply the term “stonewalling” to couples, said Kathy Nickerson, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in relationships in Orange County, Calif.
Gottman defines stonewalling as “when a listener withdraws from an interaction” by getting quiet or shutting down, she said.
“I describe stonewalling to clients as when one person turns into a stone wall, refusing to interact, engage, communicate or participate. Much like what you’d expect from a stone if you were talking to it!”
Partners emotionally or physically withdraw because they’re psychologically or physiologically overwhelmed, said Mary Spease, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in couples therapy in La Jolla, Calif.
They “are typically trying to avoid conflict or escape from conflict; they’re trying to calm themselves down during a stressful situation,” Nickerson said.
For instance, they may refuse to discuss certain topics or feelings, struggling to tolerate the discomfort. They may turn away, stop making eye contact, cross their arms or leave the room because they feel hurt, angry or frustrated, Spease said.
She described stonewalling as “an uncomfortable and hurtful silence.”
Stonewalling is a complex issue. People shut down for myriad reasons. People who have experienced trauma may disconnect from themselves and thereby disconnect from the relationship, said Heather Gaedt, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Palm Desert, Calif., who specializes in couples (particularly with those with eating disorder and addiction issues). Partners might shut down because they’re keeping secrets or feel resentment if it’s a topic they’ve talked about over and over.