It is an age old mechanism in politics when people say ‘no comments’ and maintain a discrete silence. This is with a specific purpose of making no comments on a controversial issue or not to spark off a controversy. With the media practices of sensationalizing issues, public figures can be afraid of their statements being blown out of proportion. This is also practiced in diplomatic circles where it is important not to speak anything which is likely to be misconstrued. Most celebrities might maintain this stoic silence to keep away from baseless talk. So far as the public domain is concerned, the mechanism of silence is a great tool to save oneself from onslaught.
The gravity of the method is felt in the private sphere and especially in intimate relationships and marriages. John Gottman, Ph.D, an eminent researcher on relationships was the first person to apply the term “stonewalling” to couples. Gottman defines stonewalling as “when a listener withdraws from an interaction” by getting quiet or shutting down. “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!” According to him it is a 90% predictor for couples heading for divorce.
The method of stonewalling as a defence is a popular enough method. Psychologists opine that this is employed largely by male members in comparison to females. Since men feel that women ‘nag’, men prefer to switch off and turn deaf. You will hear many wives saying this of their husbands, ‘you could be talking to a wall for all he cares’, ‘he just does not react’, ‘he may hole up without talking to me for days’, or ‘he will not make the effort to break the silence- it has to be me’. The message of the person who stonewalls is like this, ‘Leave me alone’, ‘do what you like’, ‘that is enough’, I have had it’ and so on. Many jokes and humour has been created out of this condition but it is not a joke for an aggrieved person. For when communication stops and a dead silence is maintained it has repercussions for all at home, more for the aggrieved spouse and also for the kids. It helps no one.
Women may also use this technique of avoidance and withdrawal. When a communication begins to overwhelm, psychologically and physically, she may withdraw and fall silent. She may refuse to discuss topics and feelings. If this is done for a short period of an hour or so it can be useful to stop the escalation of conflict. But if it prolongs into several hours and several days it leads to stress and trauma for the spouse and is a negative defence. It is definitely damaging to the relationship.
There could be several reasons for this style of conflict resolution. Firstly it could be learned behaviour in childhood as one of the parents might be deploying this method for keeping away from conflict. Secondly it could be an inability to express one’s emotions in a more positive and assertive way. It could also be due to a lack of awareness of emotions that are brewing in the mind, such as, anger, resentment, fear, anxiety or sorrow. Inadequate skills in conflict handling may be one of the reasons for employing stonewalling instead of confronting it and resolving it. Another important reason could be secrecy and the desire to maintain the secrets and not be vulnerable by exposing them. This increases the communication gap between spouses.
It is a negative method and hurts both. It impacts the one who stonewalls for it bottles up the feelings leaving it unexpressed. It also stops the person from self introspection and hence halts the personal growth. If the method is used for years without learning new healthier ones it is bound to hinder the personal development. The person never matures emotionally or grows psychologically. On the other hand the spouse who lives with the silence feels devastated by feeling that he /she has been thrown out for no fault, feels misunderstood, invalidated, alone and disconnected.
There are ways to overcome this for both the spouses. Much work has been done by psychologists on this issue. For the persons who stonewall, they must learn to recognise the emotions arising within, identify them and learn to speak out the emotions. Another way could be to inform the spouse for some timeout, say for an hour or half a day and state a time for continuation of the dialogue. Informing the spouse of the overwhelming emotions and their inability to continue will help the other to respond positively to the needs of the other. As far as the affected spouses are concerned, they must not take the stonewalling as a personal comment on them but rather as a weakness of the spouse in communication. They must learn to wait and leave the spouse alone to sort out the emotions. They must too withdraw, disengage and try not to continue the talk. They must stop the communication immediately and find other ways to entertain themselves like get out with friends, go for a sport, go away from the spouse. The situation has to be handled by parting ways and leaving the dialogue pending rather than feeling frustrated and angry.