Tapping into our practice’s expertise in couples therapy, Bustle featured our Founder and Clinical Director Matt Lundquist and Senior Therapist Kelly Scott’s observations about unhealthy relationship dynamics in two recent articles.
In “How to Respond to a Partner Who’s ‘Stonewalling’ You,” Matt explains what stonewalling is, how it can impact relationships, and how to navigate the situation when it happens. “Stonewalling,” he says, “is a full-on refusal to engage in a difficult conversation, a dispute, or in response to someone expressing a hurt or a need.” Importantly, there is a difference between disengaging, which can be helpful during an argument, and stonewalling, which completely shuts down communication. “Largely,” Matt articulates, “I think of stonewalling as a refusal to engage—not responding to questions or texts or invitations to work through things, not making it clear to the other person that they’re hurt and why.”
The effect of stonewalling on a relationship can be, Matt observes, “severe.” Not only can stonewalling impact the present relationship, but it can also recall traumatic past experiences. “For individuals who had a rejecting or withholding parent, or an absent parent, stonewalling can conjure difficult experiences from the past,” he asserts.
Stonewalling can be both a defensive technique (trying to protect oneself from hurt feelings) and abusive (intentionally attempting to hurt a partner). If you have a propensity to stonewall, Matt suggests working to identify your motivations. This includes asking yourself hard questions such as: “Was I silent because I was scared and needed space or was I punishing my partner?”
If you’re dealing with a partner that is stonewalling, Matt says disengaging in the immediate moment can help. Later on, he offers, “Let them know you won’t tolerate it, that it’s a bigger deal to you than they may realize, and they need to find another way to deal with hard conversations.”
Similarly, in “Here’s What ‘Hoovering’ Looks Like in Relationships,” Kelly gives her perspective on “hoovering,” an abusive strategy often used by narcissists to suck a partner or ex back into a toxic situation. “When people talk about hoovering,” she says, “they’re generally referring to a person’s attempts to create or regain connection with someone through manipulation.”
Why do narcissists do this? Kelly explains, “In the service of protecting their ego and sense of identity, narcissists often use the people around them to make them feel valuable, powerful, and irreplaceable. When one of those people ‘defects,’ a narcissist often can’t tolerate the rejection.” Hence, they try to draw the person back in so that they can “avoid the painful feelings of abandonment and criticism.” It’s not just narcissists, though. She describes, “…anyone could be in a situation where they are—knowingly or not—trying to exert influence on someone to keep them from leaving. Though there are degrees of manipulation that range from fairly benign to egregious and harmful.”
One of the most harmful is a partner or ex-partner inventing a crisis in order to force the other person to respond. This can include self-harm, suicide attempts, or dangerous, impulsive behavior. “Hoovering can be quite dangerous because it can cause a person to lose sight of reality,” Kelly observes. “Any kind of emotional manipulation can…cause a person to act against their own interests, doubt themselves, or even alienate other relationships in an effort to soothe and comfort the person doing the hoovering.”
If you’re dealing with this kind of manipulation, Kelly says the healthiest response is “holding the line and removing yourself from a coercive dynamic.” There are, however, certain situations where a partner may not be able to leave immediately, including divorces that involve kids and instances where physical safety is a concern. In these cases, she reveals, “Sometimes [leaving] is a long game that requires strategy and some amount of ‘playing the game’” until you’re certain of your safety.