Have you ever been in an argument with your partner that just keeps getting more and more intense?

Everything said seems like the same thing over and over again. And then the argument escalates to the point where one partner completely withdraws, pushing the other way. It’s like a stone wall was built to solve the problem. Yet you’re both left feeling alone or resentful.

This act of withdrawing during conflict is also referred to as stonewalling.

Stonewalling is a coping mechanism that happens because a person feels emotionally overwhelmed. Instead of dealing with the conflict, they completely shut down, building a wall between themselves and their partner.

Stonewalling might happen because the person does not know how to deal with conflict or their feelings. It might show up as silent treatment, refusing to communicate with their partner, or just withdrawing from the argument completely.

People stonewall in arguments for a number of reasons:

  • They might truly believe that resolving the conflict is hopeless.
  • They may not know how to express their feelings.
  • They want to avoid conflict as a defense mechanism.
  • They want to maintain control of the situation or punish their partner.

Overall, because stonewalling can show an unwillingness to resolve an issue, it can be damaging to the relationship.

So, what’s the solution to stonewalling?

The key is to take a break and do something completely unrelated to the argument. Get your mind off the argument completely!

Use these strategies to resolve the conflict when you feel yourself wanting to turn away:

1. Set a time to revisit the conversation. When you ask for a break, set a time in the future to check back in with each other. If you still feel tense at that time, ask to set another break.

2. Distract yourself for at least 20 minutes. Do something that takes you away from the argument completely so that you can distract yourself from the conversation and calm down. Listen to a podcast, read a book, watch an episode of television, or solve a crossword puzzle.

    • A study by The Gottman Institute has shown that couples who spend at least 20 minutes on a completely different activity can return to the conversation in a more productive way.

3. Breathe. To calm your body, take in a few deep breaths.

    • As you focus on your breath, bring yourself to the present. Notice five different things about the area surrounding you, like the color of the sky or the way the wind rustles the leaves of a tree.

4. Write down how you feel about the situation. What emotions do you feel? Why do you think that is? What stories about yourself do your emotions reflect?

5. Revisit the argument with the goal of understanding your partner’s point of view.

    • Avoid pointing fingers or assigning blame to anyone.
    • Try to understand the root of your partner’s point of view.
    • Be curious and ask questions, so you can learn something new about your partner and yourself.

After you feel calmer and refreshed, revisit the conversation with gentleness, understanding and patience.

Taking a break from the argument can seem counterproductive. We want to resolve the conflict! Keep in mind that taking a break from the argument can help both partners feel calmer and return to the argument productively.

Remember that disagreements are a natural part of any relationship, romantic or otherwise. Even the happiest couples have disagreements. Conflict between others is unavoidable!

But what sets the happiest relationships apart from rest is how the partners deal with the conflict and repair afterwards.

Work together on simple ways to pause the argument and cool down. When you return to the conversation, remind each other (and yourself!) how much you love one another. That reminder can help you approach the discussion from a place of understanding, compassion, and love.

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