Timeout Bingo: The Cure for Stonewalling in a Relationship

Stonewalling in a relationship is so damaging that John Gottman (the dude who can predict divorce with 94% accuracy) labeled it one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. It will literally trample all over your relationship until it’s just a bloody blob of pain and exhaustion.

So how do you remedy stonewalling in a relationship? Timeouts! Yeah, it sounds like dumb little kid stuff, but I say we embrace our adorable childlike qualities and turn it into a game called Timeout Bingo! *jazz hands*

Seriously, timeouts can save your sanity. I won’t go so far as to say they’ll save your relationship (this ain’t no click-bait article), but if you and your partner both follow all the steps in Timeout Bingo (copyright me, you best pay me if you turn this into an app or whatever), it will prevent arguments, help foster mutuality, and minimize the amount of stress hormones flying around like ghosts in your blood.

Ghosts of cortisol – spoooky. Photo by Karolina Grabowska

What is Stonewalling

Stonewalling is exactly what it sounds like. During a discussion (or argument), one person acts as though they’ve turned into a stone wall by being totally unresponsive, refusing to communicate or cooperate. They may withdraw from the conversation, shut down, tune the other person out, turn away, or pretend they’re busy with other stuff.

Stonewalling is a reflexive response to feeling overwhelmed, flooded, defensive, or ashamed. Instead of confronting the issue head-on, the stonewaller attempts to avoid those unpleasant feelings, prevent frustration or aggression, and/or “keep the peace.” It’s a short-sighted solution to a deeper, ongoing problem.

When someone is stonewalling due to feeling overwhelmed or flooded, their body has moved toward a fight-flight-freeze response. Their heart rate has increased, stress hormone ghosts are flying around their bloodstream, and they’re kind of freaking out. There’s literally no way they can have a calm, rational discussion while in that state.

Stonewalling in a Relationship

By temporarily “keeping the peace,” the stonewaller engages in a form of avoidance. They rob the relationship of their voice, which can ultimately result in feelings of resentment and bitterness since they’re not being heard. It also eliminates any chance of mutuality, thereby destroying the relationship.

Stonewalling in a relationship can stem from a lack of coping skills, fear of anger, or difficulty acknowledging one’s internal landscape (or all of the above). It can also come from a place of frustration. The stonewaller may feel that their partner won’t listen to them and therefore deserves not to be listened to themselves. Or it may come from a place of objectification. Rather than seeing their partner as an equal with their own valid thoughts and opinions, they see them as an object that must be controlled or manipulated.

No matter why it happens, stonewalling can become a habit, resulting in greater and greater disconnection. A relationship cannot heal or improve when there is stonewalling going on.

The Effects of Stonewalling on Others

Let’s say that you try to talk to your partner about a problem in your relationship and they pretend you don’t exist. Or you express how you feel about an issue and they literally ignore you. Or you attempt to offer a solution to an ongoing conflict and they just stare off into space as though some alternate dimension only they can see has just opened up to reveal the secrets of the universe. Hello? Am I even here? This shit is infuriating.

Photo by SHVETS production

Being treated as though you don’t exist can be worse than being yelled at. It completely invalidates your thoughts, feelings, opinions–your entire existence. It is completely disempowering. How can you do anything when you don’t even exist? You can’t!

How to Get Through to a Stonewaller

Often there is no getting through to them when they’re in stonewall mode. But, if they’re stonewalling due to fear of your anger, you can try temporarily setting aside your anger in order to resolve the situation.

Sidenote: Your anger is completely valid and should not be bottled up, ignored, or avoided. It is not a “bad” emotion. But I know that sometimes you just need to handle this one stupid issue before you go scream into a pillow or burn down your marital bed or whatever. Do not make a habit of setting aside any of your feelings to make other people more comfortable. Seriously. Okay, sidenote over.

Try to feel compassion for your anger – “Hey, anger. I totally appreciate that you’re looking out for me right now and you are VALID and amazing and I love you. But can you just step aside for a minute so I can deal with this dumb shit. I promise we’ll talk again in a little bit.”

Then try to feel compassion for their stonewalling – “Hey, stonewalling. I see you there and you annoy the shit out of me. But I get that you’re just trying to protect jerkface in a misguided kinda way.”

Finally, say something like this to your partner: “I get that when I’m angry, you start feeling attacked/so much shame/flooded/whatever, and that makes you shut down and quit talking. I know this is a difficult conversation, and I imagine that you’re withdrawing in the hopes of getting me to just stop. I would like for us to be able to talk calmly so that we can reach a resolution and ideally never have this dumb discussion again. Do you think we can do that?”

One of three things will likely happen at this point. One, they’ll say yes and then you’ll have a lovely conversation wherein you solve all the world’s problems. Two, they’ll say no or their actions will say no (continued stonewalling). Three, they’ll say yes, but their actions will say no (continued stonewalling). If it’s either of the last two, you’ll want to implement a timeout.

Not like this. Photo by Karolina Grabowska

Timeout Strategy for Stonewalling in Relationships

If you just yell “TIMEOUT” and walk away, it probably won’t help much overall. Instead, you need to sit down with your partner when you’re both calm and agree on a timeout protocol. Here’s what you’ll need to agree on:

  • Signs that you’re heading for stonewalling
  • A timeout word/phrase
  • A timeout signal
  • Who leaves the room when a timeout is called
  • Who comes back when the timeout is over
  • How long the timeout should last

Signs That You’re Heading for Stonewalling

I’m all about finding tiny amusing things in the midst of total shitstorms, and Timeout Bingo is an opportunity to do just that. How it works is you create your list of signs for each of you that indicate that an incident of stonewalling is imminent.

Signs for the stonewaller might include things like:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Acting busy
  • Apologizing without actually listening
  • Minimizing concerns
  • Derailing the conversation
  • Communicating defensively
  • Refusing to answer questions
  • Making assumptions
  • Blame shifting

Signs for the stonewallee might include things like:

  • Feeling desperate to be heard
  • Asking a million questions
  • Trying to control
  • Over-focusing on the stonewaller’s problems
  • Feeling abandoned
  • Being judgmental or critical
  • Feeling overwhelmed or worked up

Okay, so you have your list of signs all written out. Next you make a point to notice those things when they happen. “Oh, he’s minimizing my concerns right now. And now he’s moved to blame shifting. And here’s the defensiveness.” Once you hit an agreed upon number of those signs (I normally use a three strikes rule), yell “BINGO!” in your head, and call a timeout using either your word/phrase or signal.

BINGO, sucker! I’m done. Photo by SHVETS production

One of the cool things about Timeout Bingo is that naming those signs gives you a bit of space from them, so you don’t get so caught up in them. Imagine bringing up an important issue, being met with defensiveness or avoidance or whatever bullshit behavior comes up, and being able to stay super zen because you SEE the bullshit and can let it just slide right by instead of stepping all up in it. This, and the fact that you’ve avoided a full-blown episode of stonewalling in your relationship, are your bingo prizes.

Timeout Word/Phrase

Your timeout word/phrase can simply be “timeout,” or it can be something extremely mature like, “I’m taking a timeout. I’ll be back in 30 minutes.” It can even be something ridiculous like “Taco Bell!” (another opportunity for amusement in a shitstorm). Whatever it is, it just has to be mutually agreed upon.

Timeout Signal

Your timeout signal can be a thumbs up/down, a raise the roof motion, a Bewitched nose twitch, whatever works for you. Probably not a middle finger though. Keep it neutral.

This is to be used when you’re so pissed that saying one more word will literally make your entire body explode into a white-hot ball of rage. You don’t have it in you to say “Taco Bell!” without ripping someone’s head off, so you simply raise the roof and boogie on out.

Photo by Godisable Jacob

Who Leaves/Comes Back After Timeout

Usually the person who calls the timeout leaves the room and comes back after the timeout is over. Often, when the timeout protocol first goes into effect, one person is calling most (or even all) of the timeouts while the other person just keeps escalating and acting like timeouts don’t exist. The person who keeps calling the timeouts is usually better at emotional regulation than the person who rarely calls them. It sucks when you’re better at emotional regulation (which can be really friggin difficult) and your reward is that you have to be the one who leaves and comes back. The hope is that your partner is working on their emotional regulation skills and, over time, they will get better at it.

Also, it kind of doesn’t suck to be good at emotional regulation. Yay for knowing how to not be consumed by your emotions!

How Long Timeout Should Last

Fancy science people have determined that it takes about 30 minutes for you to fully calm down physiologically after a tense situation and that it’s impossible to feel compassion or concern when you’re all worked up. No good will come of things until you both calm down, so do not return from timeout until at least 30 minutes has passed.

If your agreed upon rule is that you’ll come back together 30 minutes after the timeout is called but you have jobs and kids and other stuff that gets in the way, you just need to expand your agreement to say something lawyerly like, “Timeouts will last 30 minutes, after which the timeout caller will return to the timeout callee to resolve the issue. Should important situations that can not be easily postponed (e.g., work, kids, etc.) prevent that from occurring within the specified timeframe, we will come back together as soon as feasibly possible, no later than 24 hours after the timeout was called.”

Obviously change the details as you both see fit and make sure to read the agreement in your most hoity-toity lawyer voices.

What to Do (and Not Do) During a Timeout

When the timeout word/phrase/signal is used by either one of you, a timeout has officially been called, and there should be no further comments, questions, or words of any kind. You both shut up and one of you leaves the room. This can be hard af. You may feel a lot of pent-up, angry energy swirling around inside you. Here’s what to do with that.

Don’t rehash the argument in your head. Don’t rehearse what you’ll say when the timeout is over. Don’t ramp up your anger. Move that angry energy out of your body and cool down. It’s totally fine to recognize that you’re angry because you’re sick of not being heard or respected and that your partner is being a huge jerkface. There’s just no point in dwelling on the dumb details of it all unless you want to stay angry.

If you’re not super pissed, you might be able to simply validate your anger and then ask it to chill so you can read a book or watch a show or something. Or maybe you need to do some self-care or grounding exercises. But if your anger is really roiling, move that energy through you. Draw aggressively stabby shapes, go for an angry walk, throw rocks in a safe direction, beat the shit out of your bed, dance to a really loud, fast song, stomp your feet like a 4-year-old. Do something to let it out.

Your anger is telling you something. It’s saying that this situation you’re in doesn’t feel right or fair to you. Whether it is or isn’t fair “in reality” doesn’t matter. The fact that it doesn’t feel fair is your reality. Your anger is trying to protect you from being hurt or treated poorly by validating that. Ignoring your anger means ignoring your gut. And you need to learn to trust your gut. Respect your anger, trust that it’s trying to protect you, then handle the situation appropriately.

Once you’ve honored your anger by allowing it to speak up and move through you, you can focus on cooling down before the timeout ends. Now is the time to read a book, play a game on your phone, pet an animal, drink a cup of tea, or do whatever it is you do to relax and take care of yourself.

What to Do After a Timeout

When you come back together, it’s nice if you can both start by saying a couple of things you appreciate about each other. This sets you up to be non-defensive and open to one another’s influence.

Next, try to understand how you each felt during the argument, recognizing that you both had valid feelings. Ideally, the person who does the stonewalling in the relationship will go first by asking the stonewallee how they felt and then paraphrasing and validating those feelings. For example, “You were frustrated and hurt because it seemed like I didn’t care about what you were saying. That makes sense. I would probably feel the same way.” Then the stonewallee does the same for the stonewaller. Even if you don’t agree with their feelings, accept that this is how they feel and that they have a right to their feelings.

Finally, each of you should present a solution to the issue that was raised before the timeout. The person who is listening should do so without interrupting or criticizing. Focus on what will work and be flexible. Then work together to decide how to combine your solutions so that both of you are satisfied. Compromise is the name of the game.

Your goal here is to cultivate mutuality through collaboration and cooperation. That’s why you BOTH communicate your understanding of the other’s feelings. And you BOTH present a solution. And you are BOTH satisfied with the end result. You can stop an argument or an incident of stonewalling with a timeout, but you can’t repair the underlying patterns that cause all that mess without developing mutuality.

These cats are great at cultivating mutuality. Photo by Francesco Ungaro

If you’d like to schedule a session with me to talk more about stonewalling in your relationship, timeouts, or anything else, head over to my contact page. I get it.