What Is Stonewalling?

A couple having a communication problem.

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What Is Stonewalling?

Stonewalling involves refusing to communicate with another person.  Intentionally shutting down during an argument, also known as the silent treatment, can be hurtful, frustrating, and harmful to the relationship.

Stonewalling is broadly described by the following behaviors:

  • A general discomfort in discussing feelings
  • Dismissing or minimizing a partner’s concerns
  • Refusing to respond to questions
  • Refusing to make eye contact or offer nonverbal communication cues
  • Walking away from discussions that cause stress

Stonewalling is rarely effective. And, if it becomes a habit, it can reduce a couple's ability to resolve conflicts or interact intimately.

Signs of Stonewalling

Many times, stonewalling in a relationship is obvious. However, it also can be subtle and you may not realize that you or your partner are engaging in stonewalling. Signs of stonewalling can include:

  • Ignoring what the other person is saying
  • Changing the subject to avoid an uncomfortable topic
  • Storming off without a word
  • Coming up with reasons why they can't talk
  • Refusing to answer questions
  • Making accusations rather than talking about the current problem
  • Using dismissive body language such as rolling or closing their eyes
  • Engaging in passive-aggressive behaviors such as stalling or procrastinating to avoid talking about a problem
  • Refusing to ever acknowledge their stonewalling behavior

Causes

While stonewalling can be hurtful, you shouldn't necessarily assume that it is inherently ill-intended. At its very heart, stonewalling is often a behavior born out of fear, anxiety, and frustration. Some reasons a person may resort to stonewalling include:

  • A generalized avoidance of conflict (emotional passivity)
  • A desire to reduce tension in an emotionally-charged situation
  • A genuine belief that they “cannot handle” a certain topic
  • A fear of their partner’s reaction or where a talk may lead
  • A belief that their partner has no desire to resolve the conflict
  • An underlying hopelessness that a resolution cannot be found
  • A means to establish themselves as neutral on the subjuct
  • A way to view their partner as "emotional" or "unreasonable" 
  • A means to manipulate a situation so that they can get their way
  • A means of bringing a situation to a crisis, either to draw larger grievances into the conflict or to end a relationship altogether

Stonewalling is oftentimes a tactic learned during childhood. It may have been a behavior their parents used to "keep the peace" or to gain dominance in the family hierarchy.

Even if the stonewalling appears intentional and aggressive, remember that it's often used by people who feel powerless or have low self-worth. Within this context, stonewalling may a defensive mechanism used to compensate for these feelings. 

Research suggests that men are more likely to stonewall, due in part to societal roles that place women as communicators and dictate that men are "strong and silent."

Types of Stonewalling

There are a few different ways that stonewalling might appear in a relationship. These include:

  • Unintentional stonewalling: Sometimes stonewalling is a learned response that partners use to cope with difficult or emotional issues. People who stonewall may do so to avoid escalating a fight or to avoid discussing an uncomfortable topic. They also might be afraid of their partner's reaction.
  • Intentional stonewalling: In extreme cases, stonewalling is used to manipulate a situation, maintain control in the relationship, or inflict punishment. If you think your partner is verbally abusing you, speak with a counselor or therapist for advice.
  • Behaviors that are mistaken for stonewalling: It's important to note that stonewalling is not the same thing as asking for space or setting boundaries. Asking for time or space requires communication. When partners ask if they can discuss something later, they are not stonewalling you. In fact, insisting that they speak to you at that moment when they have asked for space is controlling.

If stonewalling is used to control, belittle, disrespect, or demean the other person, it may be a form of emotional abuse. In such cases, you should reach out to a mental health professional for help.

Impact on Relationships

Whatever the underlying cause, stonewalling can damage a relationship. Partners who are stonewalled often feel demeaned or abused. They may even begin to question their own self-worth.

Moreover, shutting someone out often escalates the very situation it was meant to avert. It either forces a confrontation, or frustrations build to a point where regrettable things are said.

Some researchers have suggested that stonewalling is a key predictor for divorce.

It signals an unwillingness to resolve problems central to sustaining the relationship. Other studies have shown that the behavior can have a direct physiological impact on both partners.

A 2016 study, which followed 156 couples over a 15-year period, concluded that stonewalling was associated with acute musculoskeletal symptoms such as backaches, neck stiffness, and generalized muscle aches. By contrast, the stonewalled partner was more likely to experience cardiovascular symptoms such as increased blood pressure, tension headaches, and rapid heart rate. 

Overcoming Stonewalling

If stonewalling occurs within your relationship, it is best to deal with it as a couple. Whether you are the stonewaller or the person being stonewalled, you cannot isolate stonewalling as the problem. Doing so only assigns blame and ends up diminishing the larger issues in the relationship.

Because a relationship is unlikely to succeed without communication and collaboration, you need to find the right tools to "reprogram" old communication habits. This situation is one where couples counseling can help.

Couples therapy is designed to help both partners understand why the stonewalling is taking place. As a couple, you learn to identify behaviors or practices that lead to stonewalling.

Once those are identified, you can then be taught a more structured approach to communication. Here are some elements that might be included in the strategy.

  • Accepting feedback and acknowledging wrong perceptions or mistakes
  • Acknowledging what was said before launching into a reply
  • Agreeing to postpone the conversation if things get contentious
  • Being aware of body language while the other person speaks
  • Expressing understanding of the situation and allowing each person to reply
  • Decompressing before approaching a contentious topic
  • Finding a safe space where neither partner feels cornered
  • Setting a time to return to the conversation when things have settled
  • Using words that are neutral rather than criticizing or accusing

While it may take time to get used to these techniques, eventually they will become automatic. Then, you and your partner will be able to resolve situations rather than react to them.

A Word From Verywell

Stonewalling can have damaging effects on a relationship, but it is also something that individuals and couples can work to overcome. Couples counseling can be a great place to start. A counselor or therapist can help you learn to spot the signs of stonewalling and develop healthier, more productive ways of communicating. 

If your partner refuses to participate in counseling, you may still find it helpful to talk to a therapist. A mental health professional can help you learn to cope. If a resolution cannot be found, something such as a trial separation or even an end to the relationship may be necessary.

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