During an argument, your partner systematically leaves the room, does not listen, remains silent, ignores you or brushes aside the problems with the back of the hand, avoiding the slightest constructive exchange?

If he adopts a method of defense by breaking all communication, it is because he protects himself by erecting a wall between him and you, sometimes to the point of giving you the feeling of no longer existing. This behavior, called “stonewalling” in English, often leads couples to a dead end. How to cope? We asked Thérèse Hargot, sex therapist and couples therapist (1).

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Thérèse Hargot, sexologist and couple therapist. Photo DR

Does a person who practices stonewalling realize this? Or is it a form of manipulation?

Rather, she is aware of the reaction of her partner, who is often the opposite. This is called, on the one hand, “stonewalling”, and on the other the “hailstorm”.

Stonewalling is a reaction to the impression of losing connection with the other. When we have this feeling, we contain all the negative energy in ourselves, we fold up, we enter our shell like a turtle, we shine, we wait for the storm to pass. The person is afraid of breaking the link even more if they speak up, if they say things. She wants to preserve it. This is important to know because in the face, often, the other has a reaction of “hailstorm”, that is to say, on the contrary, he or she will seek the link with the other, by asking questions, trying to find solutions, even if it means exaggerating his emotions. It is an outward-looking reaction.

The problem is that the “turtle”, seeing this, will be even more afraid, it will wall itself even more in silence. And the “hailstorm” will go into hurricane mode … All of this can last for several years, until it explodes. Either the “turtle” turns into a pressure cooker, or the “hailstorm”, by dint of going towards the other but not finding the connection, will look for it elsewhere, in an extra-marital relationship for example .

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Illustrative photo Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Are these two different and mixed reactions rare?

On the contrary, “stonewalling” is often the counterpart of the “hailstorm”. The majority of the couples are made up of these two types of reaction, it is the yin and the yang, knowing that the men are more often “turtle” and the women “hailstorm”. Couples who are made up of two “turtles”, it’s complicated because they don’t talk to each other, they never quarrel, but go their separate ways one fine day. The couples made up of two “hailstorms” are very passionate, they howl in dismay, they adore each other. Whether one is more “turtle” or “hailstorm”, these are two awkward reactions. In therapy, we offer a secure framework allowing constructive dialogue and lifting these defense and protection systems. We will put them face to face, make them talk, make them listen to each other … This protocol will help the “turtle” to come out of its shell and the “hailstorm” to return its energy, not to interrupt the other, to be attentive, in order to rebalance the dialogue.

Why is the attitude of the “turtle” painful for the other? Because he feels like the other is running away from him?

Exactly. Living with a “turtle” can be very painful because we have the impression, each time, that the other escapes us, that he does not understand what we are saying, that he does not fit in. empathy. But the reverse is also true, because the emotions are exaggerated, because the situation seems inconstant, because we have the impression that everything is a drama … But the two have a lot to contribute, and this it is no accident that they make up most couples. Both will teach each other to express themselves or, on the contrary, to internalize. If we understand it, it becomes great.

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Illustrative photo Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Is it better to lean towards the “turtle” or the “hailstorm”?

The “turtle” is more valued in our society, which prefers rational, thoughtful, calm behavior. However, the “hailstorm” is much more in tune with her emotions and her needs for a happy life, she is more in tune with herself. We can work on these mechanisms that we learned in childhood. We developed them according to our parents: if they were rather stuffy, we become more “turtle”, if they were rather absent, we become more “hailstorm”. When the problem is communication, you can really balance it all out and transform relationships.

How to react healthily? Are there any keys?

It is important to put the discussion of “what is wrong” in a conducive framework. Being in front of each other, looking at each other when we talk, really listening to each other, not interrupting each other … And also doing it at the right time, not during an idyllic trip to the world. Mauritius for example! The “hailstorm” speaks at any time, it is intrusive, and it is unmanageable for the “turtle”, who is not always willing to speak. Communication isn’t about talking a lot, it’s about speaking at the right time. We can start by asking the other if they agree to talk. It is a way of respecting the freedom of the other. Learning to say things at the right time, and saying them well, is called emotional cleanliness.

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Illustrative photo Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Is separation inevitable in cases where it does not work?

To separate for that, for me, it is a real mess. We can separate because we have an inability to live fidelity, because there are pathological behaviors, but here we are on a reaction, a behavior on which we can work, and really change the dynamics of the couple, a few sessions are often enough to unblock the situation. But it’s true that it hurts. If this mode of communication is not corrected, the couple hurts each other and will stop. You have to react as soon as possible because in general, when the “hailstorm” loses hope of saving her marriage, that’s when the situation changes.

(1) Thérèse Hargot, sexologist, couple therapist, author of “What could save love?” (Albin Michel, 2020) offers face-to-face and online consultations. In particular, it has implemented a digital method to put an end to the abusive consumption of pornography.