Everything You Need To Know About Stonewalling
Updated October 26, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Nicole Gaines, LPC
The first thing you may be asking is, “What is stonewalling?” Stonewalling is defined as “refusing to comply or cooperate with” or to be evasive or obstructive. In relationships, this may look like a person’s refusal to answer questions or engage in dialogue. Or a person who is stonewalling might completely disengage for a prolonged period. The term comes from a literal stone wall, an obstruction to getting somewhere, and is persistent, enduring, and difficult to surmount. The person stonewalling may become like “a stone wall.”
Experiencing Stonewalling Can Be Painful
Stonewalling can cause conflict and distress in relationships. If one partner withdraws, the other partner may feel confused, frustrated, or distressed. A partner who stonewalls may do so because they want to avoid or postpone addressing issues. They feel overwhelmed because they don’t know how to express their feelings or are using withdrawal as a means of manipulation. However, improving communication is important because respective direct communication is key to a healthy relationship. No matter the reason for the stonewalling, the partner on the receiving end of the behavior can experience hurt, frustration, and doubt.
Well-known relationship expert Dr. John Gottman—a longtime psychologist and researcher of relationships—specifically addresses stonewalling. He refers to stonewalling as the “fourth horseman of the relationship apocalypse.” To understand that description, let’s first look at what he means by a horseman and how stonewalling can fit into a larger unhealthy relationship pattern.
What Are the Four Horsemen?
Dr. Gottman has defined four key indicators that may be signs of a communication breakdown. Through his research, he has predicted if a relationship will be successful based on these “four horsemen.” He calls them the four horsemen as a reference to the four horsemen of the apocalypse in the Bible, whose presence supposedly signals the end of the world. In the same way, Gottman’s four horsemen may be signs of the end of healthy communication in a relationship.
Gottman’s research shows that stonewalling may follow the first horsemen (signs of relationship trouble: criticism, contempt, and defensiveness.
Criticism: This can sometimes be a legitimate concern or observation. However, criticism that is not constructive may attack the person instead of the undesirable behavior. While this horseman by itself may not prove the end of a relationship is near, research shows it may open the door for the other “horsemen” or relationship troubles to waltz through. It can be the first in many steps of a relationship breakdown.
Contempt: Communication to make a partner feel bad is a sign of contempt. This behavior can include mocking, sarcasm, name-calling, or even disrespectful body language and non-verbal cues. Contempt can be a step beyond criticism because it may also assume a kind of superiority in addition to attacking the other person.
Defensiveness: With defensiveness, a person may try to make excuses for behavior without taking responsibility. They may try to blame the other person and not acknowledge the other person’s perspective.
Stonewalling: This can be a response to contempt, and it means that instead of interacting at all, the person disengages. This can often look like withdrawal, silence, or evasive maneuvers.
Why Do People Stonewall?
People may stonewall for many different reasons. Stonewalling may be a defense mechanism for someone who feels overwhelmed by the conversation or situation they find themselves in. It may also be a “way out” of dealing with relationship challenges that the person does not want to face. In some cases, it may be a way of manipulating or punishing a partner. Some partners may stonewall because they feel they aren’t equipped to handle relationship or conversation challenges. They may also be afraid of where the conversation might lead. They may have been taught to use stonewalling as a way to “keep the peace” while they were growing up. They may have learned from experience that stonewalling and general withdrawal can be used as a means of getting their way in a situation. The reasons for stonewalling can vary, but each one typically shares the common characteristics of avoidance and withdrawal.
Is Stonewalling A Healthy Reaction?
Stonewalling is not typically productive. If a partner needs time before they’re ready to respond or engage in a conversation, a better course of action would be to say so respectfully. “Putting up a wall” can block the success and health of the relationship.
How Can I Recognize Stonewalling?
Each relationship is different. Partners can effectively communicate using different styles. In general, however, some indications stonewalling may be taking place in the relationship. A partner who is stonewalling may:
- Ignore their partner in a conversation.
- Physically walk away from a stressful or frustrating conversation without explanation.
- Make excuses to avoid having a serious conversation.
- Refuse to answer or respond to direct questions.
- Dismiss concerns and legitimate complaints that their partner wants to discuss.
- Change the topic.
- Give their partner the “silent treatment.”
If you see these behaviors are a pattern with you and your partner, stonewalling may be occurring in your communication. Working on healthier communication styles may help your relationship.
How Do I Handle Stonewalling from My Partner?
When handling stonewalling from your partner, there are healthy communication tools you can try to engage your partner productively.
- Acknowledge your partner’s feelings. You might start with a simple statement like, “You seem a bit frustrated right now. Can you please tell me what’s going on?” By acknowledging their feelings in the conversation and respectfully asking the question, they may feel they have the opportunity to reply honestly and openly.
- If they check out, try checking in. If a partner seems to withdraw, it may be helpful to ask them how they’re feeling about the issue.
- Ask your partner if they’d rather continue the discussion later. If your partner is not taking the opportunity to express themselves, you might ask, “Would you like to take a break and continue this conversation after we’ve had a chance to think about things?”
- Respectfully let your partner know how you feel. If your partner stonewalls, using “I statements” to let them know how you feel when it happens can help. For example, instead of saying, “You’re avoiding me,” you might say, “I feel frustrated because I feel like you’re avoiding the topic. I want to find a way to work through this.”
- Try to avoid unhelpful responses. If a partner is stonewalling and won’t stop despite your respectful efforts at communication, it may be best to take a break so that your stress and frustration don’t escalate.
- Consider discussing stonewalling at a time when it’s not happening. When your partner is not stonewalling, you might try talking to them about the way you feel about stonewalling in your relationship and what you can do together to have healthier communication.
- Respect boundaries. If your partner says they don’t want to engage in challenging conversations before bed, for instance, you can respect their space and ask them when they feel they can speak most productively.
How Do I Stop Myself From Stonewalling?
Suppose you find that you’ve been stonewalling in your relationship, and you want to stop. This self-awareness can be a good first step! You can try to replace stonewalling behaviors with some healthier ones. They may take time, patience, and practice but can benefit your relationship and your communication style.
- Try to identify your emotions. An antidote to stonewalling can be to take honest stock of your emotions in the moment of frustration. If and when you feel “flooded” or genuinely overwhelmed during a heated conversation with your partner, identifying that feeling may motivate you to take action to manage it.
- Communicate your feelings. Calmly communicating your feelings to your partner can help. This can be a simple statement like, “I feel overwhelmed by this conversation right now.” You might take it a step further and suggest, “I need to take a break for a bit before we continue this conversation.”
- Set a time to have (or to resume) a conversation. If you take a break in a conversation to calm down before continuing, setting a specific time for the conversation to continue can help you avoid stonewalling again. Setting clear expectations for yourself and communicating them with your partner can be productive.
Relationship Counseling Can Help
If you find that stonewalling is affecting your relationship—or if you have other relationship concerns—couples or individual counseling may help. Suppose you and your partner go to couple’s therapy together. In that case, a licensed mental healthcare provider can work with you to develop healthier communication styles and identify tools that can strengthen your relationship. You can connect with licensed mental health professionals—including couple’s counselors and individual therapists—at BetterHelp.
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