Relationships, Part 46: The Third Foul: Stonewalling

Building a stone wall
Stonewalling is when you or your partner communicate or cooperate about as well as a stone wall. It’s pointless to have a conversation with a stone wall; and unnecessary to be one. It’s the third foul to avoid if you want to have a constructive conversation.

Listen for these words: Fine… Whatever… Sure… Later…I’ll try…Sort of…Not now..Yes, Dear.. I never said that…, if you want to distinguish a stone wall from a responsive human being.

Listen for the passive voice behind which stonewalling partners, governments, and corporations hide from responsibility. “Mistakes were made…”

Pay attention for deflection, sparse responses, or outright refusing to answer questions.
Watch for lack of eye contact, a brief conversation, vagueness, non-commitment.

It’s easy to mistake a person stonewalling for someone out of touch with his emotions or someone with low verbal skills. To tell the difference, you’ve got to see them in other circumstances. Can he express his feelings when his football team loses? Can she talk for hours with her girlfriends? If theycan, but they are not doing it with you, they are stonewalling.

Stonewalling usually occurs when the stonewaller is flooded. Now, there’s a mixed metaphor for you. I’m talking about being flooded by emotions, when you have so many emotions going on, you don’t know how you feel because you’re feeling so many things. Flooding also occurs when the emotions are so strong, you’re afraid to do anything or say anything because it would probably be the wrong thing. Flooding emotions can overwhelm all good sense.
It’s a pretty good idea to shut the hell up when you are flooded before you make everything worse. I recommend it to people. Having a period to cool down is a great way to forestall fights; and, provided you ever return to the issue, it’s a better way to resolve differences. Why do I sometimes call it a foul, then? What is the difference between shutting the hell up because you are flooded and stonewalling?

The difference is in the notification.

If you get flooded when you talk with your partner take a break, by all means; but give some notification to tell him that’s what you’re doing. Memorize the following phrases: “Let’s take a break… Time Out… Let’s cool down… Let me think…This is going badly… I’ll get back to you in a minute…” before you get silent, evasive, or walk away. This way your partner know what’s going on. All you have to do is say one of those phrases and you are absolved from the guilt of stonewalling. Provided you don’t abuse the privilege, that is.

If your partner asks for a break when he is flooded, please, please give it to him. Nothing good ever comes when you persist in an argument after flooding occurs, even if you think he is abusing his break-taking privileges. Abuse of break-taking should be an issue discussed at another time, not added on to the argument you are already having.

Some couples have trouble taking breaks when they need to. Once their adrenaline gets going, they don’t back down for nothing. They won’t ask for a break and they won’t grant one. Some china has to be smashed or blood spilled before they will stop.

In those cases, it’s important to recognize flooding and take a break earlier. Some couples like that are better off having their difficult conversations in public places if that environment is likely to restrain them, or with a referee. If that doesn’t work, they’re better off with an order of protection.

How much time do you need for a break? Twenty minutes, tops, provided you didn’t spend your break stewing or rehearsing zingers. That’s not really a break, is it? An effective break can be very short. Check your pulse when you begin and end the break when it slows down.
Another thing I recommend for couples who have had problems with stonewalling is the establishment of a safe word. At the beginning of the conversation, agree on some word you don’t use commonly. “Oklahoma” is a good one if you don’t live in Oklahoma. Having an easy way out of a difficult conversation has a paradoxical effect on people. When you know you can easily stop a painful conversation, you are more likely to go forward with it. It eliminates the need for stonewalling.

So stonewalling is often used to help manage flooding. If you are stonewalling when you are not flooded, then you have a serious problem. You need to think about whether you are capable of love or if your relationship is more about retaining power and control. You need to think about whether you are a reasonable human with feelings, or an inanimate, inert, immovable object.

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

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