Recognizing The Signs Of Stonewalling
If you are in a conversation or argument and your partner emotionally shuts down and refuses to communicate, this can be an example of what is called “stonewalling.” Stonewalling most often happens during times of conflict, when a person may feel so overwhelmed by the conflict that they withdraw, perhaps to steer clear of difficult conversations or fear that getting into a heated discussion will result in a fight. In this article, we’ll explore some of the signs of stonewalling, the impact it can have on relationships, and a few suggestions for how to cope if this is something you’re experiencing.
What Is Stonewalling?
Especially in close relationships, conflict can seem overwhelming sometimes. When faced with an intense argument, someone may withdraw from the situation and refuse to communicate. Stonewalling can be defined as when a person becomes so overwhelmed that they emotionally shut down and remove themselves from the interaction.
When someone is stonewalling, they may walk out mid-discussion without explaining or refusing to address the issue concerning them. 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 disengaged our partner becomes.
Why Do We Stonewall In Relationships?
We may stonewall because we’re incapable of expressing our feelings in that moment; we may find opening up difficult, painful, or scary. We might stonewall when our feelings are jumbled, and we can’t figure out what exactly we’re feeling, leaving us feeling overwhelmed and at a loss for words. When our partner asks how we are feeling, it may feel 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 feel we have the time to discuss emotions. Stonewalling may also be a long-standing habit. If none of our family ever expressed how they felt or what they thought during our 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, an American psychologist who has extensively researched marital stability, identified four toxic behaviors he called the Four Horsemen that, according to his research, can signal the end of a relationship. They include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
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.
Is Stonewalling Abusive?
People sometimes stonewall to try 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 can drop, and they may experience a loss of control. Even though the stonewalling partner is seemingly doing “nothing,” they can use the tactic to establish dominance in the relationship, frequently using threats and isolation combined with the stonewalling.
The Impact Of Stonewalling
Stonewalling can have devastating effects on a relationship. Resolving conflicts can become nearly 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, or we may shut down, too.
The stonewalled partner can often feel helpless. Even if they want to alleviate the situation and mend the relationship, they may feel entirely unable as their partner refuses to engage. 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 can worsen the situation—especially if the stonewalling partner’s silence results from fear or anxiety about their feelings. Tensions rise, and the stonewalling may increase in intensity as the stonewalling partner refuses to express themselves.
If your partner is often stonewalling you, you may have tried and failed to get a response many times, and you may even stop trying to engage altogether. You may 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, if your partner uses other behaviors besides stonewalling, such as isolation, intimidation, and persistent criticism, the situation may be more serious. In response, you may withdraw and begin to feel worthless.
How To Address Stonewalling In A Relationship
If you are on the receiving end of stonewalling, often a useful first step is to exercise understanding and compassion. You can acknowledge your own frustration but recognize that lashing out will only worsen the situation. It may help to consider that your partner’s response is likely not vindictive but rather a result of their fear of expressing emotion.
You can also 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. Rather than trying to force your partner into opening up, you can offer them the option of conversing and tell them you’re prepared to listen. You might also suggest that they seek out someone else to express their feelings. This could be a trusted friend or family relative, or 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, you may 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 can be your goal later, but starting with writing can be a useful option. Then, you can also consider some of the steps detailed above, such as seeking help from a trusted friend or relative, or speaking with a therapist for support.
The next time you find yourself stonewalling, consider engaging in the following behaviors:
- Try to acknowledge when you feel emotionally overwhelmed.
- Let your partner know you need to take a break from the conflict. You could 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, you can soothe yourself by reading a magazine, going for a walk, or listening to calming music. You could also practice deep breathing.
- Address your worry 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 couples counselor who can aid with developing healthier communication tools and putting your relationship back on track.
In the case of an abusive relationship, you may need to approach things differently. If your partner is stonewalling you continuously, you may want to exercise caution as you consider actions to take and the kind of response these might evoke in your partner.
If you are experiencing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available to help you with information and resources. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or Text "START" to 88788. You can also use the NDVH online chat system.
How Therapy Can Help
If stonewalling is an issue in your relationship, it can often be very difficult to sort through it on your own. If you would like additional support in working through communication issues, conflict, and other relationship concerns, an online therapist can help. In fact, research has shown online therapy to be effective for improving relationship satisfaction and individual functioning.
For some couples experiencing frequent stonewalling, they might decide that taking some physical space apart would be helpful as they work through their concerns. With online therapy through Regain, you and your partner can join the same therapy session from separate locations, so you don’t have to be in the same place if you don’t want to be.
Continue reading below for some reviews of Regain counselors from people with similar concerns:
“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.”
With stonewalling, someone may feel so overwhelmed during an argument that they withdraw from the situation and refuse to communicate. Stonewalling can be very hurtful and confusing, and it can be difficult to deal with in a relationship. If this is something you’re experiencing, consider trying some of the suggestions detailed above, and for further support, an online therapist can help.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is stonewalling in a relationship?
Stonewalling in a relationship occurs when one person metaphorically builds a wall between themselves and their partner, effectively preventing their partner from expressing their feelings. Signs of stonewalling can include all sorts of behaviors used to avoid communication, vulnerability, or conversation. These can include looking away, acting busy, or exhibiting obsessive behaviors. These distractions can make the other person stop talking because they do not think their partner listens or cares about them.
Stonewalling can be damaging for both the relationship and the individuals involved. The person being stonewalled may feel frustrated and, as a result, may not feel worthwhile expressing themselves honestly, either to their partner or to others. If the stonewalling continues, serious conflicts can occur.
What is narcissistic stonewalling?
Narcissists may use stonewalling to manipulate their partners to gain a sense of control in the relationship. They may try to gain power by using stonewalling behavior to avoid conflict and make their partners feel alone or helpless (and thus under their control). Stonewalling can damage individuals and make them feel like their words have no value.
What to do when someone is stonewalling you?
If you have identified that someone is stonewalling you, you can approach them and try to discuss the situation. It may help to try to empathize with them and show that you are willing to listen when they are ready to talk. During this stage, you could also suggest that they speak to a friend, family, or trained professional about their feelings if it feels more comfortable. If they can verbalize their feelings to another trusted person, they may have an easier time telling you about themselves. Since stonewalling involves negative impacts on the person being stonewalled, you may also consider asking for some space during this stressful time. You may want some distance from your partner. You can encourage and support your partner, but ultimately, changing their behavior is in their hands.
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