Stonewalling (building walls) means refusing to communicate with someone and thus refusing any cooperation. The term is used for toxic relationships and suboptimal dating, but also for diplomatic and legal negotiations.
Stonewalling is evident in body language alone, which can be aimed at avoiding any constructive interaction with a counterpart. It also includes certain conversational techniques: The individuals in question who use stonewalling distract in conversation and attempt to undermine it and render it meaningless. They give vague and sparse answers, refuse to answer legitimate questions, or counter them with questions of their own. Stonewalling is one of the stalling tactics rather than the avoidance tactics.
Stonewalling in politics, in business and by lawyers
Stonewalling in politics or in legal and business negotiations will only be briefly touched upon here. Politicians stonewall by simply avoiding certain questions, which is a popular means, among other things, when they have to answer to a committee of inquiry.
In U.S. politics, stonewalling became very notorious during the Watergate scandal beginning in 1972: Then-President Richard Nixon strictly refused to comment on inquiries and substantiated suspicions. It was no use to him: he had to resign in the wake of the affair. Lawyers and business partners also sometimes stonewall to keep their cards close to their chest. They withhold information for an advantage as long as possible, so the negotiators of a deal their opportunity to give way even further in price. Lawyers suppress crucial information for a long time in order to pull it out of the hat in court at the crucial moment and thus impress a jury at the right time, for example. Prosecutors, however, often break through such walls by offering felonies incentives such as immunity.
Stonewalling in Dating or in Relationships
Stonewalling already occurs during dating, and it can also occur in a relationship. In dating, one of the two partners, who has no serious intentions or is still otherwise committed but does not want to admit it, might permanently block corresponding questions. In an established relationship, this also occurs. One partner, or sometimes both, communicate inadequately and with cover-up intentions, which almost always leads to the failure of the relationship.
The U.S. therapist John Gottman has developed a cascade model with different phases that characterize the dissolution of a relationship. Phase 4, in his view, is one or mutual stonewalling. According to his studies, it is mainly men who use this technique to distance themselves from the criticism of their partners, but women also master stonewalling especially when they are already having an affair on the side. Gottman was also able to prove physiological consequences of stonewalling. Men are motivated by their own stonewalling, they become more active and communicate more vividly when they are in the realm of a made-up story.
But there is also the effect that they calm down a lot by this communication veriante. Women sense a male partner’s stonewalling, even if they can’t see through it completely, and respond with increased heart rate. Temporarily, Gottman says, stonewalling can stabilize a relationship because it also provides plausible explanations for odd behavior (for example, unexplained absences or tardiness). In the long run, however, it undermines the relationship and, in Gottman’s view, is one of the main reasons for divorces. This is because stonewalling, in its purest form, means degraded communication: the partners can no longer listen to each other and, as a result, understand each other. They no longer carry out their disagreements constructively and no longer perceive the arguments and concerns of the other side. This undermines their ability to commit to the relationship. The partner who engages in stonewalling also harms himself because, for example, he no longer allows himself to be helped with professional concerns. He negates them to the partner through the wall that has been built. Gottman also postulates that stonewalling is deeply rooted in human behavior. It is a facet of our fight-or-flight responses with which we react to stress and threat.
Symptoms of stonewalling
Stonewalling can be identified by enlightened partners who are also skilled observers. Depending on the type of wall, which may ultimately be the wall of a building of lies, the following reactions of the partner who is stonewalling will result:
- frequent, inexplicable silence
- monotonous mumbling of the partner (talking to oneself instead of communicating with the partner)
- leaving the room when a potentially conflict-laden situation is imminent
lengthy, rambling explanations for inexplicable behavior (absenteeism, tardiness), which can lead to fanciful stories
- answer questions with counter-questions
- cleverly and permanently distract from an important topic
There are even more techniques. If you think your partner is stonewalling, you only have to ask yourself one thing: Are the questions that are burning on my own mind ever actually clarified?
What can be done about stonewalling? Measures, tips
Stonewalling can be overcome by both partners. It is important to know that the partner who resorts to stonewalling more often (for the sake of simplicity, marked as male here) often does so out of necessity, because he is unable to resolve conflicts communicatively. When he finds that he can get away with it, he uses stonewalling more and more often. This does not mean that he does not suffer from it and would like to end it, which makes his inclusion in the methods of overcoming it plausible. Stonewalling of notorious liars is to be distinguished from this. There are such people who really feel comfortable only when they make up stories and, incidentally, conceal a lot of things, which in turn belongs to real stonewalling. It makes them feel superior. Such people also lie about trivial matters, although these lies do not actually give them any advantage. They also conceal things that they could have calmly said. It is important for dating to identify such people in time and stay away from them, because their stonewalling and lying are pathological reactions that they will never discard. Otherwise, however, if stonewalling is born out of necessity in an already established relationship, it can be overcome by both parties in this way:
- The partner who is relatively conscious of stonewalling themselves should let it go and instead switch to the formula, “I’m overwhelmed right now, give me a break!”
- The partner who suspects or identifies the partner’s stonewalling (based on the above symptoms) should openly communicate, “I sense that you can’t tell me the whole truth. Please tell me when you are ready.”
Both partners can arrange this form of communication. It can save their relationship.