Learning to Fight Fair: Avoiding the "Stonewall" Response in an Argument

Fighting couples stay together – but only those who fight fair.

‘Fighting’ isn’t even quite the right word here. What helps to create and sustain a healthy relationship is the ability to recognize, express, and work on conflicts together.

What doesn’t help is a refusal to engage with your partner. In its more extreme form, this is called “stonewalling,” which means shutting down communication and letting your partner run into a painful and unresponsive “stone wall.”

Examples of “stonewalling”

You ask your partner to take care of a weekend task, and he turns away to read the paper, muttering under his breath.

You get up your courage to approach a delicate subject, such as your love life, and he says he doesn’t have time to talk about it. When you insist, he moves away to another room, either in complete silence or with a nasty remark. After that, it’s never the right time to talk.

But maybe it is your husband who wants to voice his disappointment with your lack of support, and you’re the one who turns away and doesn’t engage?

“Stonewalling” and “time out”

Although they are both forms of withdrawal from conflict, there is a huge difference between stonewalling and time out.

Sometimes, an argument gets to a point where one of the partners can no longer tolerate the intensity of his or her feelings. Calling for a “time out” communicates the need for time alone before resuming the discussion. “Stonewalling” means leaving the scene or staying pointedly silent indefinitely, and possibly avoiding the subject forever.

“Stonewalling” and nagging

“Stonewalling” men often accuse their partners of “nagging.” But this “nagging” can actually be a somewhat desperate response to persistent “stonewalling” – ignored attempts at communication, either with the partner, or the issues she brings up.

What is behind the “stonewall” response

Withholding communication can be a very powerful tool in an unhealthy relationship. The withholding partner can gain power from denying the other partner contact, communication, and other needs. But ultimately, withholding is a sign of fear. The withholder is unable to respond, afraid of losing control. The stonewall response can be the last resort of someone who feels that he has no other communication tools left.

How to react when your partner is “stonewalling” you

Again, first recognize what is happening.

Ask your partner directly to engage with you. If he still refuses, calmly communicate your response and your boundaries: “I don’t want us to go on playing out this pattern. Could you let me know when it’s a good time to talk?”

If the “stonewalling” goes on for a long time, or if you start to feel afraid, then it’s time to seek couples counseling. Discuss your failed communication in the presence of a professional who can guide you toward productive communication.

How to stop yourself from slipping into the “stonewall” response

First, recognize the signs. You may feel it’s all getting too much for you. You may feel overwhelmed. You may feel unreasonably angry. You may even be at a point in your relationship where you don’t have much hope for the future. (This is when a lot of the more extreme “stonewalling” occurs.) Observe yourself, and notice what happens just before you feel the urge to stonewall your partner.

Then, try to communicate. This is difficult, particularly when “stonewalling” is the result of fear. But just saying a few words can make all the difference and turn “stonewalling” into “time out.” Maybe you can practice by yourself before the situation heats up.

Don’t stonewall yourself. Allow yourself to feel your feelings; don’t shut them down.

Fighting fair – the tools

Remember the main tools of “fighting fair,” and work out a conflict together:

1. Speak for yourself, not for someone else.

2. Listen.

3. Don’t make assumptions, ask questions.

4. Avoid the words “never” and “always.”

5. Don’t accuse, explain how you feel.

6. Take responsibility both for your anger and your fear.

7. Allow time and space for compassion.

8. Remember that your partner is not the enemy.

9. Don’t give up, don’t run away, don’t stonewall.

10. Above all, remember that you are talking to your partner – the person you love.