I wrote in my last article about stonewalling, that nefarious process (and pattern) of shutting down a partner’s communication either aggressively, or passive aggressively, the effect of which is to leave the “stonewalled” partner feeling voiceless, alone, dismissed, negated as a person.
Many sociopathic personalities stonewall, but many stonewallers aren’t sociopaths, so how do you tell the difference? What are some signs that your partner’s stonewalling is an aspect of his “sociopathy” versus, say, his high “conflict-avoidant” personality?
Clearly some individuals are terrible at dealing with communication in general and conflict in particular. Their stonewalling may be mainly avoidant. Their wish to “deny” that trouble is afoot, their deep discomfort with emotional sensitivity and vulnerability, their high levels of defensiveness, their sense of incompetence and even hopelessness to contribute to the resolution of differences and meet confrontation effectively, may cause them to retreat, shut down, or “stonewall,” less from an attitude of indifference, disinterest and dismissiveness than from anxiety and fear.
Some individuals “freeze” in the face of perceived conflict and take “flight” literally in closing the communication hatches. Their intent may be less to hurt you than to protect themselves, and even you, fearing as they do that danger could ensue from an engagement of your concerns.
This is still stonewalling, and its effect is still perfidious, make no mistake. But its origins may come from a less malign place.
While stonewalling, then, can arise from less malign motives, sometimes, too often, it expresses serious pathological aggression, passive-aggression, hostility, contempt and callousness.
Clearly when “stonewalling” is accompanied by cold indifference—any form of cold indifference—to the stonewalled party’s wounded response to being “shut down,” this is a sign of serious insensitivity.
To state it differently: when the stonewaller, as a pattern, shows contempt towards the stonewalled party’s disturbed reaction to his stonewalling, this alerts us that we are dealing with a deficiently sensitive individual who almost certainly can be located high up on the narcissistic continuum, if not in the range of the “sociopath.”
This isn’t to say that the non-sociopathic stonewaller will react with sensitivity to your experience of his stonewalling. That’s a bit oxymoronic—if he were particularly sensitive to his stonewalling, by definition he wouldn’t be a stonewaller. But his reaction will typically express discomfort with the impact his stonewalling has on you.
He won’t, for instance, like the more sociopathic stonewaller, characteristically lash out at you with blatant hostility and nasty, hurtful, degrading accusations in response to your complaints of his stonewalling. He won’t typically blame you.
More likely he’ll shirk away, convey a perhaps somewhat sincere sense of helplessness to offer up anything more than the inadequate silence he’s offering up, as if to say, “What can I say? I have nothing to say. I’m not trying to hurt you. I just don’t want to, or can’t, deal with this. Leave me alone. Give me a break. I’m sorry you’re so exasperated and hurt. That’s the way it is.”
You will feel shut down, but you will feel shut down by someone who can’t deal, who himself seems, and perhaps is, in a sense, paralysed and helpless to deal responsibly, thoughtfully, engagingly.
In contrast, you will have a different feeling with the more sociopathic stonewaller. When he shuts down your communication, you will feel yourself—I can’t stress this enough—the object of his contempt.
You will feel palpably, viscerally, his indifference to the impact his stonewalling has on you; his indifference will feel as traumatizing as the stonewalling itself, leaving you, in effect, doubly traumatized by the interaction.
There is a sense of shock—that is, his emotional indifference, his callousness, his devaluation of your emotional experience will feel “shocking.”
As I suggested, you are likely to feel his scorn, his scoffing; are at high risk to endure his insulting, degrading comments, along the lines you are making trouble, talk too much, always looking for problems, don’t know when to “shut up,” always have to “over-analyse” everything; that you are mental, miserable; but the key thing that will accompany these, and similarly patronizing remarks, will be, as I keep emphasizing, the “contempt” for your experience that will be dripping shamelessly from his mouth.
These are some of the red flags to heed that you aren’t dealing merely with an incompetent communicator who stonewalls, which is bad enough, but with a seriously, hostilely disturbed communicator from whom you need protection, and most likely, escape.
(This article is copyrighted © 2012 by Steve Becker, LCSW. My use of male gender pronouns is for convenience’s sake only, not to suggest that females aren’t capable of the behaviors and attitudes discussed.)