The Cold Shoulder: Why “Stonewalling” is Harmful to Relationships (and what to do differently)

stonewalling and giving the cold shoulder

Have you ever been in a disagreement with your significant other when you or your partner just stops interacting? Perhaps you/they leave the room, pick up their phone, or just generally stop being responsive to you. This type of withdrawal from the conversation is called “stonewalling” and it can be incredibly frustrating and can cause disagreements to go unresolved and/or one or both people left feeling unheard. This can develop into a pattern over the course of time that could lead a couple to become angry, distant, and resentful. Stonewalling has been identified by relationship researchers as one of the behaviours in a relationship that could lead to break-up or divorce if not addressed.

psychologically overwhelmed conversation

Why does it happen?

Though there could be a few reasons why this occurs, one of the main reasons is that a person becomes physiologically overwhelmed by the conversation.

Our bodies and our minds are incredibly interconnected and when our mind experiences intense feelings, they can start to show up in our body. For example, if we are feeling angry, sad, stressed or scared, our heart could start to race, our muscles could tense, we might breathe more quickly, and we could experience nausea or discomfort in our stomach. The reason this happens is that our brain has interpreted something we are experiencing as a threat and has activated our sympathetic nervous system (responsible for “fight, flight, or freeze” responses).

When we get into this type of situation, we (or our partner) might feel that the only option is to “flee” from the situation either physically, mentally, or emotionally.

What to do as a partner?

If you notice your partner engaging in these stonewalling behaviours during a heated conversation, start by checking in with them. You might say something like “I noticed that you seem to have withdrawn from this conversation. Are you feeling a bit overwhelmed?” or “I see that you’ve picked up your phone. I would like to continue this conversation – do you feel up to it?” In the moment it might feel difficult to calmly assess the situation but it’s important to be respectful in your tone with these questions.

If your partner continues to be non-responsive, it may be useful to suggest a short break (about 20 minutes) and to plan to reconnect after this break to continue with the discussion. Ideally, this would be a plan that the two of you could speak about ahead of time so that each of you could plan to do something during the break that will aid in soothing the nervous system response. This might include taking a walk, having a shower, listening to music, writing, or something else that you find personally comforting or distracting. Then, following this short break, reconvene to continue with the discussion.

feeling overwhelmed

What to do if you’re the one overwhelmed?

It can be difficult to identify when we’re feeling overwhelmed unless we pay attention to the red flags. Get to know what your warning signs are (e.g. clenched fists, a desire to escape, racing heart, sweating, saying things you normally would not) and when you or your partner notice them, request a break. Again, it can be useful to plan for this ahead of time and build a mutual understanding that this type of break is important so that you can both continue and finish the discussion in a productive way.

Having verbal arguments is a normal part of sharing your life with someone.

How we have these arguments is what makes the difference between and argument that leads to a productive outcome vs one that leads to a harmful outcome. If these disagreements ever become physical, controlling, or personally demeaning, please reach out and talk to someone. You can contact the Healthy By Nature clinic to book an appointment with me during business hours at (403) 452 0029, or book online; or for more immediate support, you can contact the Distress Centre 24/7 by phone at (403) 266 4357 or online.

If you’d like to work on your own relationship skills, feel free to book an appointment with me, Jennifer McCormick. If you and your partner are looking for support as a couple, I can provide names of couples counsellors in either a free 15 minute “meet and greet” or over the phone.

Jennifer McCormick

About Jennifer McCormick

I'm a Counselling Psychologist working in Calgary at Healthy By Nature. I excel in individual counselling, helping people with trauma, PTSD, and other psychological challenges. Learn more about me here. Book an appointment with me here.

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