Recognizing The Signs Of Stonewalling
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
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.
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.”
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is stonewalling in a relationship?
Stonewalling behavior 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. People who stonewall may demonstrate evasive measures to avoid vulnerability or conversation, such as looking away, acting busy, or exhibiting obsessive behaviors. These distractions can make individuals stop talking because they do not think their partner listens or cares about them.
Although some people who stonewall may not be doing it intentionally, stonewalling can damage the mental health of those who experience it. The person being stonewalled may feel frustrated and, as a result, may not feel worthwhile expressing themselves honestly, either to their partner or to anyone else.
If the stonewalling continues, serious conflicts can occur. Open and honest communication is essential for almost any long-term, successful relationship.
What does it mean to stonewall someone?
You can think of stonewalling in a relationship as the “silent treatment.” Essentially, one person is not giving their partner their full attention. They may even dismiss their partner’s concerns by telling them that everything is fine as a means of not broaching the subject any further.
Men and women stonewall for various reasons, though more men tend to stonewall than women.
Some people may want to punish their partner for something they’ve done by not being there for them. These individuals may believe that their punishment is just because their partner should already know what is wrong, but stonewalling is not a healthy way of resolving potential relationship issues. By not talking to your partner, you not only risk straining your relationship, but you also fail to solve the problem that caused the conflict in the first place.
People may also stonewall because they have a hard time expressing their feelings. Thankfully, spouses or couples in these situations are often not intentionally stonewalling their partners. By having an open line of communication, you can understand your partner’s perspective and work towards building trust and honesty in your relationship.
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. No one should ever feel worthless. You can try to identify when stonewalling occurs by monitoring your partner’s behaviors and how they have been responding to you in past conversations.
Behaviors associated with stonewalling can include:
- Ignoring you by using one-word answers or looking distracted
- Showing a lack of affection
- Not paying attention to what you are saying
- Ruining special occasions by not acknowledging your presence
If stonewalling is taking place in any relationship, that is by no means a healthy means of communication. By actively avoiding the topic, couples may not deal with relationship issues.
If stonewalling continues, couples may experience a falling out. Stonewalling involves individuals making their partner feel bad for not noticing when their spouse is troubled, but you and your partner can begin to resolve these issues through communication.
What to do when someone is stonewalling you?
If you have identified that someone is stonewalling you, you can approach them and dialogue about the situation.
Do not try to force your partner to open up and tell you why they are stonewalling you. Instead, 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 or family member 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. It is in your right to want some distance from your partner; wanting them to improve doesn’t mean you’re responsible for ensuring that it happens. You can encourage and support your partner, but ultimately, changing their behavior is in their hands.
On the other hand, if you have discovered that you are stonewalling your partner and want to change things, you can take steps to change things. Sometimes, the first step is simply identifying why the stonewalling is happening.
Though more men stonewalling than women, stonewalling can happen to anyone at any time. Fortunately, open communication and effort can turn things around for the better.
An excellent technique for addressing your own stonewalling is as follows:
- Acknowledge when you are emotionally overwhelmed.
- Talk to your partner about your emotional fatigue.
- Reassure your partner that you will tell them what is bothering you after you reflect more on your thoughts
- Take a break from your conflict by talking to close friends and family or engaging with your hobbies.
- Lastly, talk to your partner about your feelings.
Is stonewalling a Form of Gaslighting?
Both stonewalling and gaslighting are similar in terms of execution and effect. The person on the receiving end likely doesn’t understand why the stonewalling and gaslighting is occurring, making it quite a distressing experience.
An individual gaslights their partner by making them believe they are at fault for problems in the relationship or that the issues they’re experiencing aren’t real. As such, the person experiencing gaslighting may feel as if they have no value.
Both stonewalling and gaslighting are abusive behaviors that often show one partner’s desire to take control of the relationship. The fundamentals of stonewalling and gaslighting go against the idea of a relationship. Relationships are about working together to create a solid and durable emotional bond.
They work together by expressing themselves truthfully and respecting one another. There is no such thing as one person having more power than the other in a relationship. In this case, it is no longer a relationship but instead someone trying to assert their dominance over another person.