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 improve this situation. You don’t want to argue, and you tend to avoid conflict. You say nothing, but your partner gets louder and more critical until they eventually give up, and the issue remains unsolved.
Alternatively, you keep wanting to bring up a concern gently, but your partner refuses to talk about it every time you do so. They may walk away or sit with their arms crossed, appearing disinterested. Perhaps your partner also criticizes you for always wanting 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 invalidation due to this experience leading to accumulated negativity in the relationship.
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How to identify stonewalling
Stonewalling is a defense mechanism marked by emotional distress or 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 usually resolved by engaging in self-soothing techniques to foster constructive conversation.
The Gottman strategy for dealing with stonewalling
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 in 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 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.”
6 Examples of Stonewalling in Romantic Relationships (and how To Handle Them)
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.
1. 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 to alleviate their anxiety and reconnect with the stonewaller.
How to deal with silent treatment
Approach your partner calmly, expressing your feelings and the impact of their silent treatment. Request them to communicate more openly, explaining that everyone sometimes needs space, but extended silence can be damaging. Promote a safe environment where you can express your thoughts and feelings.
2. Refusing to Make Eye Contact
Intentional lack of eye contact can accompany the silent treatment or during a heated discussion. 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 serious talk and can lead to loss of trust and safety if the person feels unimportant or not a priority in the relationship.
How to deal with refusing to make eye contact
Communicate your desire for mutual respect and engagement during discussions. Highlight the importance of nonverbal cues like eye contact in facilitating understanding. Regularly practicing active listening and respectful communication can help rebuild the lost trust and connection.
3. Walking Away When You Start a Conversation
This behavior may be used as a form of 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.
How to deal with walking away when you start a conversation
Understanding and patience can go a long way in improving your communication dynamics. When both of you are calm, discuss how this action makes you feel. Suggest alternative ways to handle tense situations, like taking a short break to calm down before continuing the conversation.
4. Repeatedly Dismissing Your Concerns
Body language, such as eye-rolling, closing eyes, turning away, and statements indicating their feelings or experiences are wrong, can convey dismissal and make partners feel worthless. The receiving partner may think that the person stonewalling is totally unresponsive and can become resentful for not having space to discuss their feelings.
How to deal with repeatedly dismissing your concerns
Express how their dismissive behavior affects you and assertively voice your feelings. Encourage an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding. Regular discussions where each party’s thoughts and concerns are valued can help improve this situation.
5. Starting Fights to Avoid Talking At All
This can look like engaging in passive-aggressive behaviors, procrastinating to avoid the problem, or becoming defensive when one partner raises 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 conflict avoidance.
How to deal with starting fights to avoid talking at all
Encourage your partner to face issues directly instead of evading them through conflict. Foster a safe environment where each party can express concerns without fear of escalating into a fight. Establishing healthy communication patterns can help break the cycle of conflict and avoidance.
6. Refusing to Acknowledge The Stonewalling Behavior
If a partner can point out the stonewalling behaviors and the other cannot 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 emotions, communicating effectively, or asking for time to process their feelings and thoughts.
How to deal with refusing to acknowledge the stonewalling behavior
Have an open conversation about how this lack of acknowledgment affects you. Encourage your partner to practice self-reflection and emotional awareness, explaining how these actions can contribute to a healthier relationship dynamic. Regularly share your feelings and thoughts to foster mutual understanding and better communication.
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 disconnected for fear of their statements making the argument worse. When flooding occurs, it is incredibly challenging to continue engaging in an argument rationally as they are experiencing an automatic fight or flight response.
Stonewalling can also be an attempt to avoid conflict by 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.
Unintentional vs. Intentional Stonewalling
Stonewalling can be intentional or unintentional, depending on the person’s level of awareness and experience with the behavior to avoid conflict.
Intentional Stonewalling can be a behavior the stonewaller learned from others. It can also be something they found useful in past relationships. They might also know its ability to reduce emotional engagement in relationships. As a learned behavior, intentional stonewalling can make the other feel unreasonable and gain power over them.
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, making it challenging 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 four 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 pinpointed a deficit in positive affect and unproductive arguments as physiological and affective predictors of stonewalling, escalating the likelihood of physiological flooding that hampers an individual’s capacity to participate rationally in a discussion. Per Gottman’s antidote for stonewalling, practice stopping the conversation 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 others’ behaviors, and limit safe topics. Awareness of the impact of stonewalling, including lack of safety, disrespect, 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. Still, it 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.
What to do when one person doesn’t stop stonewalling?
If stonewalling continues, seek help from a mental health professional 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 improve 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 discuss their concerns and move closer to a happy relationship.