In short, stonewalling is an attempt to avoid discussing or doing something. We build walls to protect ourselves, and the purpose of stonewalling is to protect. Generally, stonewalling is not intended to hurt the other person but it can and would be when perceived to be disrespectful or contemptuous. Unless you’re dealing with something extreme or dangerous in a relationship, assume good intentions on the part of a “stonewaller,” even if at first that’s hard to accept.
So many men and women I work with don’t immediately acknowledge it but they are afraid of open communication in their intimate relationships, so they stonewall. Here are some reasons why:
- She/he will talk circles around me and I won’t be able to articulate my views. I’ll feel foolish.
- I don’t want to hurt her/him or the relationship. If I get frustrated, I’ll get angry and say something hurtful just to protect myself.
- My partner claims to want me to open up, but when I express vulnerability she (or he) seems uncomfortable. Am I getting a mixed message?
- He/she holds all the power in the relationship but won’t admit it. It’s too dangerous to talk about.
We avoid things because we are worried and/or afraid. When our kids avoid talking with us about something important, we intuitively understand that it must be really hard for them. They are afraid of something. Is it really any different for us as adults?
Many adults—men and women—find it hard to admit they are afraid, especially when it comes to talking intimately. If you can accept the idea that your partner has good intentions, is probably afraid of something, and is worried about how to talk effectively concerning a difficult situation, you will set a better tone for the conversation. Acknowledging your own worries and good intentions up front helps, too. In fact, it’s always a good idea to state upfront your own intentions and goals when beginning any important conversation. This puts the other person at ease, which makes it easier for him or her to respond in kind.
Keep in mind that discussing a sensitive issue is difficult. It’s not a one time conversation and if/when we expect it to be, we’re in trouble. Sometimes it’s better to express your intentions, acknowledge that it’s also difficult for you to talk about, and you just want to get some thoughts on the table for the two of you to think about. Then after you’ve had a chance to mull it over, you can get back together for a real discussion.