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When silence in relationships gets loud

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You can see the anger or even outright hostility from your partner. But he/she simply won’t tell you what’s wrong, or even how to solve this issue. If this sounds familiar, then you have been stonewalled.

Nailantei Norari  @artnorari

What is the longest time you have ever spent without talking to your significant other despite living in the same house?

This was a question we asked our pod of friends during a Saturday brunch. The answers ranged from two days to three years.

“Sometime in 2018, I lost my job and my wife’s business was not doing well either. I was stressed out.

My wife was constantly nagging me and asking me what we should do in an accusatory tone that managed to communicate disappointment and a ‘how dare I lose my job with a wife and three children to support’ undertone. I could not talk to her, so I shut down.

We would only communicate through the kids. ‘Ambia daddy aache pesa ya uniform’ or ‘Ambia mami nimeenda kazi’.

It sounds juvenile, but it was my way of trying to preserve the relationship as every time we talked, we ended up arguing,” Johnson Maina, a banker and recent divorcee says.

And what is surprising is just how many couples have gone through the same motions despite differences in circumstances.

Dr John M Gottman, a leading American psychologist lists stonewalling as one of the four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse.

According to Gottman, if any of these four communication problems; criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling, or a combination thereof is present in a relationship, divorce or estrangement is an undisputed outcome, especially when the couple does not seek interventions or mediations to correct the situation.

Stonewalling, commonly known as silent treatment is normally characterised by prolonged periods of silence, unresponsiveness and cold treatment. 

Allan Lawrence, a leading counselling psychologist and life coach in Nairobi explains that majority of people who stonewall suffer from low self-esteem and fear confrontation. They, therefore, express their feelings through stonewalling.

“Others do it in order to punish the other person. It is their way of hurting the other person by withdrawing communication and attention,” he further explains. 

Sex, the first casualty

“The first casualty of stonewalling is sex, which is the centrality of marriage. This leads to an increased lack of intimacy.

The conflict can easily escalate to an uncomfortable relationship for all those involved including parents, children, and house managers.

If left unresolved, it leads to resentment which might show up as angry outbursts which might be directed towards the innocents in the relationship such as children,” Ken Munyua, a leading psychologist in the country explains.

He shares how stonewalling can adversely affect someone’s self-esteem as the victim wonders what the problem could be, what they did wrong and why their partner is unwilling to talk.

The victim is left spiraling, guessing what the issue would be, overthinking and at times settling on what they think is the root cause of the problem while it might not even be the issue.

This can severely erode one’s self-esteem as they battle with feelings of being enough and a sense of betrayal.

Allan agrees citing that the lack of self-esteem in the victim can lead them to break character such that they resort to extreme behaviour to get the attention they are being denied.

They can start cheating and even resort to violence as a way of retaliating against the stonewalling partner. 

But is all stonewalling bad? “Not all stonewalling is bad. Some people prefer silence over using words that can be hurtful.

If the stonewalling is to buy time to stay calm, and the issue is going to be resolved and discussed a small amount of time later, then it is fine.

The problem is when the stonewalling is overdone and there is no communication at all.

Cold treatment and silence is a couple’s way of showing that things are not right.

The two forms of communication that proves things are not right is either silence or yelling.

We are all wired differently and tend to favour one or the other depending on personality and socialisation,” Ken further explains.

What next?

But what does someone do if they realise they resort to stonewalling by default whenever there is a confrontation?

Allan who is also a couples’ therapist says that the first step is to be totally self-aware.

“Learn your triggers and your past traumas and deal with them. Then be aware when you start stonewalling.

Create a trigger that will help replace stonewalling with a more communicative model.

Get your partner or a friend to be your accountability partner who will spot when you are stonewalling and point it out to you so you can be more communicative.

Get professional help and just know that any bad habit can be undone,” Allan sagely advices.

In a couple setup, Ken, the psychologist advices for one partner to be the mature one and instigate communication.

“One person must be willing to break the cycle of silence. But when the discussion starts, apportioning blame, unnecessary corrections and interruptions should be avoided.

It is about sitting down to analyse the problem and sorting it out together. The couple should establish ways of staying in communication, even when they are angry with each other,” Ken concludes.

In summary

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