How to Deal With Stonewalling in a Relationship

Published 10/04/2021

How to Deal With Stonewalling in a Relationship

Stonewalling is a type of defense mechanism marked by emotional disengagement while remaining physically present as a response to experiencing complaints, blame, or criticism. Turning away can create an impression that they are disinterested in the interaction leading to further negativity from the partner that feels ignored or dismissed due to the behavior. This form of communication often leads to resentment, increased conflict, gridlocked issues, and poor mental health. Stonewalling can be intentional or unintentional and is often resolved by engaging in self-soothing techniques to foster constructive conversation.

What is stonewalling in a relationship?

Imagine coming home and being met with a barrage of criticisms from your significant other. You are exhausted from work and find that there is little you can say to make this situation any better. You don’t want to argue and you tend to avoid conflict. You say nothing, but your partner continues to get louder and more critical until they eventually give up and the issue remains unsolved.

Alternatively, you keep wanting to gently bring up a concern, but every time you do so, your partner refuses to talk about it. They may walk away or sit with their arms crossed appearing disinterested. Perhaps your partner also criticizes you about how you always want to start arguments and create problems where there aren’t any.

Stonewalling occurs in both scenarios. The first is an example of becoming emotionally overwhelmed and “shutting down” while the second shows how stonewalling can control the other’s behavior and limit what is safe to discuss. The recipient of the behavior will often experience anxiety, helplessness, defeat, and invalidated as a result of this experience leading to accumulated negativity in the relationship.

What causes the other person to stonewall?

Stonewalling can be a natural response to feeling overwhelmed by fear, anxiety, or frustration when confronted by a partner’s negative emotions. People can become emotionally flooded and disconnect for fear of their statements making the argument worse. When flooding occurs, it is extremely challenging to continue engaging in an argument in a rational way as they are experiencing an automatic fight or flight response.

Stonewalling can also be an attempt to avoid conflict through controlling what can and cannot be discussed in the relationship. Ultimately, this may come from past negative experiences and difficulty managing discomfort when discussing concerns or when needing to take responsibility.

Common Examples of Stonewalling

Here are behaviors to look out for to prevent negative consequences like low self-esteem or anxiety for the stonewalled partner, and increased conflict and gridlocked issues contributing to low relationship satisfaction. When these behaviors continue, some partners report feeling like they are roommates living parallel lives and cope by numbing or distracting with substances or activities that don’t involve the other.

The Silent Treatment

This technique can be characterized by refusal to answer questions, ignoring expressed needs, and general unresponsiveness. This behavior can continue for hours or days and typically leads to the other partner working to please the stonewalling partner and dismissing their needs in order to alleviate their anxiety and reconnect with the stonewaller.

Refusing to Make Eye Contact

Intentional lack of eye contact can accompany the silent treatment or take place while the heated discussion is happening. Nonverbal communication, such as crossed arms and legs or lack of eye contact, tends to signal disinterest and dismissal when one is attempting to engage in a serious talk and can lead to loss of trust and safety if the person feels unimportant or not a priority in the relationship.

Walking Away When You Start a Conversation

This behavior may be used as a form avoidance where the stonewaller may feel that simply refusing to engage in the discussion can prevent conflict in the relationship. However, the negative outcome can include increased conflict due to built up resentment, loss of emotional intimacy, and unresolved issues.

Repeatedly Dismissing Your Concerns

Body language, such as eye-rolling, closing eyes, and turning away, and statements that indicate their feelings or experiences are wrong can convey dismissal and make partners feel worthless. The receiving partner may feel that the person stonewalling is totally unresponsive and feel resentful for not having space to talk about their feelings in the relationship.

Starting Fights to Avoid Talking At All

This can look like engaging in passive-aggressive behaviors or procrastinating to avoid the problem, or becoming defensive when one partner brings up a concern. If they know their partner tends to shut down and retreat when feeling criticized or dismissed, this can be a tool to support their own conflict avoidance.

Refusing to Acknowledge The Stonewalling Behavior

If a partner is able to point out the stonewalling behaviors and the other is unable to take responsibility or understand why the behaviors are a big deal to their partner, this could further communicate dismissal. This could occur unintentionally in close relationships where the stonewaller struggles with awareness of their own emotions, communicating effectively, or asking for time to process their own emotions and thoughts.

Intentional vs Unintentional Stonewalling

Stonewalling can be intentional or unintentional depending on the person’s level of awareness and experience with the behavior as a method of avoiding conflict.

Intentional

Folks that intentionally use stonewalling may have learned this behavior from others, found it useful in past relationships, or are aware of its ability to reduce emotional engagement in relationships. This learned behavior can also be used to make the other feel unreasonable and gain power over them.

Unintentional

Unintentional stonewalling can occur when one is feeling overwhelmed which leads them to completely shut down and walk away from the interaction to self-soothe. Without expressing the need for self-soothing, the other may interpret this as stonewalling and continue to escalate or feel dismissed. This can also happen in dynamics where one person repetitively attempts to force an issue and is unreceptive to pausing and resuming arguments at another time, which can make it difficult to address stonewalling.

Gottman Refers to Stonewalling as the Fourth Horsemen

The Four Horsemen is a metaphor coined by relationship expert and researcher, John Gottman, outlining 4 types of unhealthy communication that predict the end of a relationship if not repaired. Stonewalling is the fourth horseman following criticism, defensiveness, and contempt.

Gottman’s research identified lack of positive affect and non-constructive arguing as predictors of stonewalling as it increases the risk of physiological flooding, which inhibits a person’s ability rationally engage in a discussion. In accordance with Gottman’s antidote for stonewalling, practice stopping the discussion and engaging in self-soothing for at least 20 minutes before attempting to resume.

Is stonewalling considered emotional abuse?

Stonewalling can be a form of emotional abuse when intentionally used to dismiss emotions, control other’s behaviors, and limit topics that are safe to talk about. Being aware of the impact of stonewalling including lack of safety, disrespect, and dismissiveness and ignoring when the other is feeling hurt can be abusive.

Walking away from an interaction without asking for space to process is not considered stonewalling abuse, but may indicate the need to improve communication skills in the relationship to reduce the risk of this type of stonewalling. Professional advice from a licensed couple therapist may be helpful to support your ability to communicate through conflict and reduce the likelihood of abuse.

How do you deal with a stonewalling partner?

If your partner is stonewalling, agree in advance on a signal to indicate the need for a break such as a word, phrase, or physical gesture to combat emotional flooding. Taking a break from the conversation to engage in physiological self-soothing can support them with being able to re-engage in discussions in a healthy way. This approach will only be effective if the other partner honors the request for a break. The recommended time for a break is 20 minutes to allow time for your nervous system to de-escalate. Avoid thinking about the argument during this time so self-soothing can be more effective. It may also be helpful to identify a good time to re-approach the conversation and re-attempt to talk things through.

Here’s an example of what a request for a break can look like: “I’m feeling too much to keep this discussion productive. Can we please take a break and come back in 20 minutes? I would like to choose a time to continue the discussion once I’ve calmed down.”

What to do when one person won’t stop stonewalling?

If stonewalling continues, seek professional help to identify the root of stonewalling and learn helpful communication strategies given that consistent stonewalling can be a response to flooding due to criticism (real or perceived) and other forms of unhealthy communication. A few tips to begin improving communication include, using “I” statements, shifting from complaints to requests, taking responsibility for part of the problem, communicating about breaks, and engaging in self-care behaviors.

Repairing communication and beliefs about conflict can increase the likelihood that partners will want to talk about their concerns and move closer to a happy relationship.

Brenda Gil, Seattle Therapist

Brenda Gil, Seattle Therapist

As a therapist, I seek to empower others and restore a positive mindset that fosters vulnerability and self-love to improve one’s connection to themselves and to others. In therapy, I support clients by identifying cycles, empower clients through the creation of new narratives, and challenge the unhelpful beliefs adopted through interactions with society, family, and other spheres of influence.

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