A slow drip can dissolve rock, cut mountains in half, and reshape the planet. Can it cut through the stonewalling of your stubborn love one?
Some people hold on to grudges. This might be passively ignoring another and only engaging superficially. Or it could be the deafening silence of relentless stonewalling.
This article is for you if your loved one has been clinging to self-righteous anger for months or years, intent on punishing you from the other side of that stone wall they built.
Stonewallers tend to have lots of complaints and lots of rules that will change according to their needs. It can be exhausting trying to keep it all straight, especially if they are telling others that they are fine, with a smile on their face. Some stonewallers seem to carry around a badge of honor or an air of superiority for all the suffering that they have experienced at the hands of the person(s) whom they have cut out of their lives.
Whether it is constructed as a severe punishment out of righteous indignation or passive avoidance that pretends everything is okay, it can be painful to experience, especially if this is a dearly beloved family member or an intimate friend.
Does this sound familiar? Is your loved one a "stonewaller" who tends to be adamant, hard-lined, and/or inflexible in general? Are you facing a prolonged estrangement from him or her?
Your loved one most likely has a high sensitivity to threat and a strong ability to inhibit their feelings and urges. Your loved one may have a history of feeling threatened, anxious, and misunderstood by you -- even if you were completely unaware of it. They may remember emotionally painful interactions with you from the past that were accompanied by intense feelings but were inhibited and unexpressed at the time.
In addition, your over-controlling loved one may experience relatively low levels of pleasure from positive interpersonal connections or pleasant social events. In some ways it may not feel like they are missing out on very much after a relationship rupture. Moreover, some stonewallers pride themselves on their self-discipline and self-control, something positive they might get from their stonewalling.
Don't be fooled, however. In spite of the high sensitivity to threat, low value of affiliative pleasure, and the high value of self-discipline, many stonewallers long to feel a sense of belonging, acceptance, appreciation, and respect by others. Nobody wants to feel ostracized and everyone wants and needs to feel belonging.
Types of Validating Drips
(Note: While there is some overlap, this is not the affect validation that can be so helpful to building trust with a person who is emotionally sensitive and highly impulsive with little self-discipline. Over-controlling stonewallers are likely to dismiss their feelings and feel even more misunderstood with emotional validation.)
The function of validation for your stonewaller is to communicate that they are safe, they belong (and they always belonged), and that they are capable, respected, and worthy of your trust. There are various components of this type of validation:
A Stance of Intellectual Humility - First of all, the words have to come from a place of honest intellectual humility. This is an attitude of being open to making mistakes, to learning, to understanding different perspectives. It is without any need to be right or need to "win" any competition. Intellectual humility honestly believes: "What do I know? I make mistakes all the time. Some of them have been whoppers. I learned so much from them...lessons I will never forget thanks to my mistakes. I'm sure I have more mistakes ahead of me, too."
Below are some examples of communicating from a place of intellectual humility. You can't just memorize them. What you say has to be honest and authentic. It has to come from the heart and be in your own words. It will also be a matter of trial and error. Some illustrative examples:
I think your right about... That makes a lot of sense. I had not seen it that way. Can you tell me more?
I don't know what to think, I don't know much about that subject. I am wondering what you are thinking, you know way more about the situation than I do.
Blaming and judging one's self can be so painful. Everyone in the family makes mistakes and messes up, including me (and I'll certainly make more in the future).
Use Non-Threatening Social Signals - You may have said or done things that felt intrusive, annoying, or threatening in one way or another. Now you have to communicate that you are accepting, respectful, kind, and completely non-threatening. If you are communicating in person, there are specific gestures that communicate subordinate friendliness: lifting and lowering the eyebrows when another speaks (a.k.a. an eyebrow wag), tilting the head to one side, making eye contact, nodding the head while listening, smiling if appropriate, and having the palms of your hands facing upward or outward. Additionally, "taking the heat off" can be communicated by stepping back, sitting down, leaning back, or leaning back and sideways while tilting the head.
Reflect Back - This communicates to the other that "We belong to the same clan."
Repeat back your understanding with humility, open to being corrected. The goal is to understand the experience of the other. Genuinely trying to understand the other's person's perspective or experience is the connection that wears down a stone wall.
I can see your point...(Reflect back what the other said.) Did I get it?
I'm not sure I get it totally. Please let me check...tell me if I got this right...(Reflect back your understanding of what the other said.)
I don't understand and this is really important to me, could you say that again, but maybe a little slower this time?
I want to make sure I get it because I want to be on your team. What you are saying is...
Mind Reading Wants and Needs - Offer helpful guesses about what the other is trying to communicate. Try validating wants, needs, and desires. The underlying message is: "Welcome Home." Hold that space for the other's needs, desires, or any aspect of their internal experience, welcoming them to reflect or expand or respond in any way to your guesses. Be open to corrective feedback, and respond from the belief that the other person is the expert of their own experience.
I am aware of imagining that you (describe what they might be wanting or needing or what motivated their behavior.)
If I were in your shoes, I might be (expecting..., anticipating..., wanting..., needing..., thinking...
I imagine that you might be thinking...needing...wanting...
If I get it, you need the same respect from your family that everyone wants and needs. And your not getting it. Nobody likes to feel ostracized and everyone needs to feel belonging. We all want and need that!
Normalize - Anyone in the same situation would have responded as you did. Communicates that "You never left the family."
"Anyone might feel what you are feeling given the situation."
"There is no perfect (mother, father, etc). All mothers worry about their parenting skills, get stressed or overwhelmed, and do or say things they regret. Parenting may be the hardest job in the world."
Everyone needs to step back, to care for themselves, and to get a breather from their family. It could be a little each day or a lot over a longer period of time. No matter how much time passes or how many ups and downs there are, the family will have your back if you need it.
Feeling like one does not belong happens to all of us. At the same time you have always been and will always be loved unconditionally by me and everyone else in the family. Welcome home. You never left.
Trust - Do not fragilize the other. Reveal your inner experience, without blaming or trying to control the other person.Trust the other person to be able to deal with that. This signals to the other, "I believe in you."
Take responsibility for your reactions, your thoughts and your feelings without blaming others. Do not pretend that everything is okay when it is not. Do not walk on eggshells here, but also do not try to compete over who is right, who is smarter, or even who suffered more. Be kind and respectful, communicating that you believe the other is strong enough to handle your feelings.
"I am aware that I reacted with anger. It was not your fault, it is my responsibility to manage my frustration without yelling.
"I felt really guilty when you told me that and I want to thank you for sharing that with me."
"I am feeling confused right now. Could you explain that to me again, with a concrete example? I have a sense you have more clarity on this than I do."
"I am so sad and hurt after this rupture to our relationship. I am hoping that we can connect sometime soon and talk. I am aware that you might not be interested in that for now."
It seems like you need your space. I miss the connection we had and I trust you are strong enough to know how I feel and be okay with it. I also trust you to hold your space with kindness and care for yourself.
Signal Reciprocity - "We are the same."
Match expressions of emotion, intensity of emotion, vulnerability, form or style of communication.
If the other is furious, increase the intensity of your emotion, speak a little louder and faster and appear a little tense. Going up a little will communication more connection and help the other to feel validated and perhaps come down a little.
If the other is sad, slow down your words, lower your voice, frown your eyebrows, and curve your head and shoulders forward a little. Going down a little will communication more connection and help the other to feel validated and perhaps have a little more energy.
A Slow Drip of Validation
The "slow drip" is a series of validating text messages, phone calls, emails, cards, or even a note that accompanies a small gift such as homemade bread or cookies. These messages should be sent without any expectation of a response. The frequency of such messages may be once every three months, every three weeks, or every three days depending upon the relationship and its recent and long term history and habits. Ask your Wise Mind how often seems right. You want enough time to pass so that emotions can cool and the other might actually miss you. The media through which such messages are sent also depend upon what types of communication your stonewaller typically uses. Ideally it would be in person. In reality it might start out as monthly text messages or emails to melt the ice a little.
Every now and then increase the intensity of the connection. Move from a text to a voice mail or a phone call. Ask permission to drop off a small gift. Go back to texting (or whatever the preferred form of communication seems to be.) A few samples of messages that might be part of different slow drip series:
Early on, recognize one's (unintended) invalidating behavior, without apology:
"I carefully read the list of grievances that you sent. I understand that there are many things that I have done that do not meet your standards. It is obvious that I have made many mistakes in the past few years. I am aware that there is a lot that you are expecting from me before you will feel comfortable renewing our relationship."
"I can see how threatening my actions back in April must have been. I did not realize how much I was pressuring you and not respecting your needs. I can honestly say that it was a mistake on my part. It makes sense that it will take time and that I will have to work hard to rebuild your trust. I can assure you that our relationship is important to me. You are my family and it makes me very sad to know how much you are hurting as a result of my actions."
"Gosh, I messed up. I respect you and value our relationship. I can see how hurtful my actions were to you. I imagine that you need time to recover. I just wanted to let you know that I am thinking about you."
Continue the slow drip of validation with messages that do not really ask for anything in return. Don't forget emojies, which can signal feelings beyond words:
"If you feel that holding this space and distance between us is less threatening, it is understandable that you are communicating less. I want you to feel safe, welcome, and respected -- which you are and you always have been by me and everyone in our family. ❤️"
"Hoping you are feeling safe and protected today and everyday, knowing how capable you are at defending yourself and standing up for what you believe! 💪🏽👑 I doubt you need anything, but if you do, let me know.
"Hope this day finds you happy and content. I imagine you are as dedicated as always and working hard. Have a good one. 🙏🏻"
Up the ante sooner or later and propose some kind of in-person meeting or even a dropoff of a gift:
"I have the sense that you don't like video calls, but I was wondering if you might make an exception. I really miss you. I know you have not wanted to see me for a while and I can respect that."
"I imagine that you are busy these days. I was thinking how hard you work at parenting and how important that is to you. I really admire you for that...it's not easy! I was hoping to drop off a watermelon for the kids. I can leave it on the porch if that's okay."
"Thinking of you and how much I would love to see you. I am aware that you may not feel like it, but I would like very much to have lunch together. Are you interested and available any day next week?"
"Thinking of you. Sending love. Everyone in the family has your back. You are one of us!"
Stonewalling functions to protect someone from being vulnerable: it protects them from feeling their own emotions, from learning new information, admitting an error, or accepting that there are different ways of seeing things. Vulnerability and shame can be buried under a set of precise rules about the severity of the transgression and the negative interpretations regarding the character of a person who would engage in such a transgression.
The slow drip of validation is a process of inviting this person back into the family, which they never really left anyway because they always belonged!
This article is based upon the work of Thomas R. Lynch, Ph.D.,
author of Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy.