The concept of stonewalling in marriages and other relationships is certainly not new, but it has recently begun to receive greater emphasis from family law attorneys, relationship therapists, and other professionals who focus on marriage and divorce. In fact, the Gottman Method of Relationship Therapy considers it one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse when it comes to marriages. Along with contempt, criticism, and defensiveness, stonewalling is a destructive behavior that often results in divorce if left unaddressed.
Stonewalling is the refusal to engage. It can take many different forms and will often manifest in various ways. Family lawyers and relationship therapists believe that incidents of stonewalling occur in most marriages, and while it’s never an ideal behavior, isolated cases can generally be chalked up to the ups and downs that practically all married couples deal with. However, when stonewalling is a persistent behavior, it’s very harmful and can cause mental and physical damage to both parties. It’s often cited among reasons that people divorce and can be a precursor to even more serious bad behaviors as well.
Stonewalling can be a choice, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Some people use it as a defense mechanism and may not be acutely aware of the behavior. It’s not uncommon for divorce attorneys to recognize this behavior in their own clients and bring attention to it. If a person continues to receive criticism from a partner, their defensiveness will continue to evolve, and stonewalling is an eventual byproduct for many people, as it provides a means of disconnecting and avoiding emotional pain.
Mental health professionals also warn that stonewalling is a narcissistic trait, and it can be a type of emotional abuse. In an abusive relationship, the abuser may use the tactic to control or manipulate the other person. It can be a way to silence, coerce, or even punish them. A person with narcissistic tendencies will often want to shut down any communication about a topic that makes them uncomfortable, and in such a dynamic, we often see gaslighting used in conjunction with stonewalling.
There are many forms that stonewalling can take in a marriage. According to many divorce lawyers, some of the most common stonewalling behaviors include:
It’s important to note that a single instance of any one of those examples is probably not stonewalling. Your partner may just have had a bad day but wasn’t necessarily trying to stonewall you. If you have these experiences multiple times, though, therapists recommend that you ask yourself four core questions:
If you answer yes to any of these questions, then there is a good chance that your partner is either inadvertently or purposefully stonewalling you. You can broach the concern with your partner, but of course, you do run the risk of them ignoring you or seeking an out from the conversation. At that point, you may want to consider therapy to protect your own mental health and learn alternative strategies.
Family lawyers warn that although stonewalling can be an unintentional defensive reaction, it can take a great toll on you, even if you’re aware of the tendency. The emotional toll can undermine many aspects of your mental health, but there is also substantial evidence that this kind of emotional wear in a relationship can manifest itself physically. People who are emotionally abused are more prone to headaches, fatigue, back pain, insomnia, and so forth. It is for these reasons that the stonewalling needs to be addressed in a productive manner as soon as possible, and it is also important to note that a person who is stonewalling as a defensive mechanism is just as prone to the mental and physical issues as the other spouse. Left unattended, these behaviors will break down the bond between the partners, and that can open the doors for contempt and other issues.
Being stonewalled can result in a spectrum of emotional responses. Some people will feel sad, while others will get angry. You may also feel hurt, frustrated, disappointed, disregarded, or alone. Communicate your feelings even if your partner chooses to ignore you. It may help to think about how your partner is struggling with their emotions, too. Be aware of the other “Horsemen” and avoid allowing what you feel to develop into them. You may need to take a break from your spouse, and it’s all right to take care of yourself, even if that means just taking a walk or a bath. You should also consider seeking professional help from a therapist.
Divorce attorneys often encourage their clients to go into therapy as soon as they consider divorcing or become aware that the marriage isn’t functioning in a healthy manner. Ideally, you and your spouse attend couples’ therapy together and work through the issues as a team. However, if your partner stonewalls you when it comes to treatment, marriage therapists recommend that you begin therapy on your own. Therapy will promote good mental health and provide someone who will listen to what it is you want to say. Your therapist will teach you tools through which you can protect yourself from the stonewalling and other bad behaviors, along with strategies that may help you convince your partner to take the step of getting into therapy.
As soon as you entertain the idea of getting divorced, it’s a good idea to meet with a divorce lawyer. You don’t have to make the decision right away, but the sooner you consult with a lawyer, the better position you’ll be in if you do choose to move forward with divorce. Lawyers who deal with divorce and other family law issues can connect you to many resources that can help even if you stay together or get separated or divorced.
If you do choose to get divorced, be cognizant of the fact that the stonewalling behavior may continue into the divorce phase. There may be nothing that you can do about that. The good news is that, in New Jersey, you can get divorced even if your spouse refuses to participate.
If you are dealing with a spouse who is stonewalling you, there are avenues available to you through which you can change your situation, and Lawrence Law would like to help. You can meet with one of our New Jersey family law attorneys to discuss the current state of your marriage and explore your options. We have offices in Watchung and Red Bank, and you can schedule a consultation with us by calling us at 908-645-1000 or by using the contact form on our website.
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