Stonewalling in a relationship 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.
In a discussion or argument, the listener withdraws from the interaction, shutting down and closing themselves off from the speaker because they are feeling overwhelmed or physiologically flooded. Metaphorically speaking, they build a wall between them and their partner.
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
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 not to 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
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 be a defensive mechanism used to compensate for these feelings.
Types of Stonewalling
There are a few different ways that stonewalling might appear in a relationship. These include:
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.
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.
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.
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.
What’s the antidote to stonewalling?
The first part of the antidote to stonewalling is to STOP.
However, this is a bit easier said than done. If you try to stop the argument and walk away singlehandedly, that could be interpreted by your partner as an even bigger display of stonewalling, and it could escalate the situation. What you’ll need to do is agree ahead of time on an appropriate and recognizable way to take a break.
Think of a neutral signal that you and your partner can use in a conversation to let each other know when one of you feels flooded with emotion. This can be a word, a phrase, a physical motion, or simply raising both hands into a stop position. Come up with your own! And if you choose a silly or ridiculous signal, you may find that the very use of it helps to de-escalate the situation.
Really, it doesn’t matter what that request for a break looks or sounds like, as long as it is respectful and that both you and your partner agree to recognize it when you need a break and, most importantly, agree to honor that request for a break.
So, if you are stonewalling and feeling flooded, say that you need a break using whatever signal, word, or phrase you and your partner have decided upon. Let each other know when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Then, you need to walk away and do something soothing on your own. This break should last at least twenty minutes since it will take that much time for your bodies to physiologically calm down.
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.