Recognizing The Signs Of Stonewalling

Updated October 12, 2022 by ReGain Editorial Team

If you have ever been at the receiving end of the silent treatment, you have experienced stonewalling. A stonewalling person is showing a relentless refusal to express emotions or communicate. Stonewalling most often happens during times of conflict, when we may stonewall to steer clear of difficult conversations or fear that getting into a heated discussion will result in a fight. This article will help you to recognize the signs of stonewalling in yourself or your partner so that you can take steps to mitigate it, whether you are the recipient or the perpetrator.

How To Recognize Stonewalling

Stonewalling Can Be Painful - Learn The Signs

Especially in close relationships, conflict can seem overwhelming. When faced with an argument, we may shut down and refuse to communicate. Do any of these conversation-killing phrases sound familiar?

“Talk to the hand….”

“End of conversation….”

“Do whatever you want….”

“Get out of my face….”

Stonewalling generally occurs when we want to avoid disclosing our feelings. We can walk out in mid-discussion without explaining or refusing to address the issue concerning us. When we’re on the receiving end of stonewalling, we may become angry and frustrated when our partner uses these tactics. But we often find that the more we protest, the more silent our partner becomes.

Why Do We Stonewall In Relationships?’

It’s common for people to use stonewalling to punish their partners. It’s a passive-aggressive response because we think our partners should already know the problem, especially if they’re originally at fault. We may stonewall because we’re incapable of expressing our feelings; we find opening up difficult or painful. We might stonewall when our feelings are jumbled. We’re afraid of overthinking things. When our partner asks how we are feeling, it’s easiest to say, “I’m fine,” and continue shutting off the discussion.

Stonewalling can happen for practical reasons as well. If we’re overwhelmed by work and taking care of children, a busy life can put us in the habit of stonewalling because we don’t want to take the time to discuss emotions. Stonewalling may be a long-standing habit. If none of our family members ever disclosed how they felt or what they thought during childhood, we may have never developed the ability to discuss our feelings. The very thought of talking about our emotions may make our stomachs churn. Sometimes we have learned to stonewall because of our experiences in a prior relationship. We may have learned to avoid speaking our minds because a previous partner responded negatively when we did.

When stonewalling is intentional, the offending partner may be attempting to dominate the relationship. Stonewalling, in this light, can be a means of gaining control.

Gottman’s Four Horsemen: Stonewalling

Dr. John Gottman, a therapist who extensively researched marriage relationships, identified four toxic behaviors he called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Of the four-horse riders, stonewalling is particularly troublesome. Gottman claims he can predict divorce with almost 100% accuracy based on the four horsemen’s presence in a marriage.

Stonewalling often emerges as a response to fear and frustration. Your partner may be using it to diffuse tension in a situation that’s overwhelming emotionally. They may also be trying to self-soothe. Gottman discovered that men experience physiological stress more frequently during disagreements than women, making them more prone to stonewalling—very often as an attempt to avoid conflict altogether.

Is Stonewalling Abusive?

People sometimes stonewall to get the upper hand in a relationship, using it as a tactic to manipulate or control their partner. If stonewalling is intentional, the partner who cuts off conversation frequently draws out the situation, which prevents the other person from considering ways to address the conflict. The partner who is being stonewalled may feel helpless; their self-esteem drops, and they may experience a loss of control. Even though the stonewalling partner is seemingly doing nothing, they use the tactic to establish dominance in the relationship, frequently using threats and isolation combined with the stonewalling.

The Devastating Impact Of Stonewalling

Stonewalling can have devastating effects on a relationship. Resolving conflicts becomes next to impossible. Even seemingly insignificant disagreements can spiral out of control. When we’re on the receiving end of stonewalling, we may feel desperate and resort to saying or doing anything to put an end to the stonewalling. Frustrated and upset, we may escalate the issue into a more severe conflict than the original disagreement. That said, any negative response to stonewalling can compound the problems brought on by the original stonewalling practice.

The stonewalled partner will often feel helpless. Even if they want to alleviate the situation and mend the relationship, they feel entirely unable. It has already taken a toll on the link if stonewalling is common, especially if the other three horsemen are present.

Over time, the stonewalled partner may resent being treated in a distant and hostile manner. They may push the stonewaller to express their thoughts and feelings. This can result in anger and arguing, which worsens the situation— especially if the stonewalling partner’s silence results from fear or anxiety about their feelings. Tensions rise, and the stonewalling only increases in intensity as the stonewalling partner refuses to express themselves.

If your partner is a stonewaller, you may have tried and failed to get a response many times, and you may even stop trying to engage altogether. You find yourself in an emotional stalemate, where emotions are shoved aside, and the connection between the two of you becomes weaker as time goes by.

Finally, your relationship may have even become abusive. This is likely the case if your partner uses other behaviors besides stonewalling, such as isolation, intimidation, and persistent criticism. In response, you may withdraw and begin to feel worthless.

How Can I Address The Negative Effects Of Stonewalling?

The best approach is to exercise understanding and compassion if you are on the receiving end of stonewalling. Acknowledge your frustration but recognize that lashing out will only worsen the situation. Consider that your partner’s response is likely not vindictive but rather a result of their fear of expressing emotion. 

Stonewalling Can Be Painful - Learn The Signs

Let your partner know that you want to help, but this will only be possible if they’re willing to meet you halfway. Instead of applying pressure, try to empathize. Avoid trying to force your partner into opening up. Offer them the option of conversing and tell them you’re prepared to listen. Suggest that they seek out someone else to express their feelings. This could be a trusted friend or family member—even a professional therapist. Your partner may discover that verbalizing their feelings in this way can give them a sense of perspective that makes it easier to discuss issues as a couple later on.

Suppose you are the person who is stonewalling. In that case, it’s important to acknowledge that no matter how difficult it is to get your feelings out in the open, it’s ultimately better than keeping them stuffed inside. Consider putting your feelings in writing. You may find it’s easier than talking as it puts a little distance between you and the conversation. Don’t let perfection stand in the way; get your feelings down in writing. Talking in person should be your goal later, but beginning in writing can be a useful option.

In the case of an abusive relationship, you may need to approach things differently. If your partner is stonewalling you continuously, exercise caution as you consider actions to take and the kind of response these might evoke in your partner. Be aware that communicating with your partner could provoke an even more negative outcome. Ultimately, you may need to seek professional help.

If you have been experiencing domestic violence, reach out for help immediately. You can reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Antidote To Stonewalling

Are you the stonewaller in your relationship? Do you wish things could be different? The next time you find yourself stonewalling, consider engaging in the following behaviors:

  • The first antidote to stonewalling is to acknowledge when you feel emotionally overwhelmed.
  • Let your partner know you need to take a break from the conflict. Say, “Why don’t we leave this discussion for another time when we’ve both calmed down.”
  • Give your partner assurances that the two of you can re-engage when you’re both ready.
  • During your break from the conflict, soothe yourself by reading a magazine, going for a walk, or listening to calming music. Practice deep breathing.
  • Address your anxiety about what will happen should you convey your thoughts and feelings to your partner.

Applying an antidote will be easier when both partners feel motivated and committed to change. But suppose you and your partner struggle to replace stonewalling with more caring behaviors. In that case, it may help to see a couple’s counselor who can aid with developing healthier communication tools and putting your relationship back on track.

How ReGain Can Help

If you continue to experience stonewalling in your relationship, it is especially important to seek professional assistance. You can choose to chat via text or, if you prefer, on a video chat or over the phone. You should feel comfortable with whichever method you choose. Our compassionate staff is here to serve you at any time. Our licensed medical professionals are ready to make mending your relationship a priority.

“My girlfriend and I have been working with Alison for about four months now, and with her help and guidance, we have strengthened our relationship tenfold. Her communication style is amazing, and she strives to make the best of our time with one another. If you’re looking for a counselor you can put your faith in with the whole experience, she’s the one to go to.”

“With Cassandra’s help, we’ve been able to bring our relationship to a new, healthier, and much happier level, working through painful situations, growing as individuals and as a couple, and with tools to stay on this path. She’s very responsive, and it has been great to have her facilitate our messaging through the app all week. I highly recommend Cassandra. She’s skilled, supportive, and down-to-earth. We feel comfortable with her.”

For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns

Speak With A Licensed Therapist
This website is owned and operated by BetterHelp, who receives all fees associated with the platform.
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.