Stonewalling: When Silence Kills Relationships

How do you and your partner handle conflict? Do you peacefully talk it out and listen with an open mind or shut down and avoid the conversation? It is perfectly normal to get on each other’s nerves, but if one of you constantly responds with the latter, it may infuriate the other party and cause emotional harm in the relationship. 

The response mentioned above is known as stonewalling or silent treatment. American psychologist and relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman says that stonewalling is among the “four horsemen of the apocalypse,” a metaphor for communication styles that can increase the likelihood of divorce. The other three responses/behaviors are criticism, defensiveness, and contempt. 

Continue reading as we explore the definition of stonewalling, how it affects relationships, and how to deal if your partner is doing it to you or if you’re the one doing it.

 So, What Is Stonewalling?

As we mentioned above, stonewalling in a relationship is a type of conflict response where the other person freezes up or shuts down, acting like a stone wall. They withdraw from the interaction, becoming silent or unresponsive during conflicts or arguments. 

There are two types of stonewalling: aggressive and defensive. 

  • Aggressive – the stonewaller is aware that the cold/silent treatment and emotional isolation hurt their partner. They behave this way to gain power, manipulate, or control the other person.
  • Defensive – the stonewaller is overwhelmed by conflict and arguments. They see shutting down as the only viable option to escape conflict and prevent getting hurt.

Stonewalling may be a learned strategy during childhood. For instance, parents may use such a response to de-escalate conflicts or establish themselves as the dominant figure. It may also be caused by fear and anxiety, as well as difficulties with expressing emotions. When you’re with someone who constantly stonewalls or if you do it, therapy can be beneficial, especially in improving communication skills. 

What Does Stonewalling Look Like?

In many cases, stonewalling is quite obvious in relationships. There are times, however, when it is subtle and may go unnoticed. Here are the signs of stonewalling:

  • Storming out in the middle of a conversation without warning
  • Ignoring what the other person is saying or pretending not to hear
  • Acting busy or too occupied to engage in a conversation
  • Dismissive body language, like scowling or eye-rolling
  • Defensive communication
  • Refusing to answer questions 
  • Engaging in passive-aggressive behaviors
  • Changing the subject or making accusations to avoid the issue

Why Do People Stonewall in Relationships?

Stonewalling usually occurs when a person is overwhelmed or becomes flooded with emotions. While the person at the receiving end might feel upset or angry, stonewalling is not necessarily ill-intended. There are various reasons people do this, not always because a person is rude, childish, or indifferent.

  • To avoid conflict – Withdrawing from the heated argument/situation to stop it from escalating or getting out of hand.
  • As a long-standing habit – Growing up in a household where no one expressed their feelings may cause you to feel anxious or uncomfortable talking about your emotions.
  • As punishmentUsing stonewalling as a form of control and punishing a partner who has behaved in a way that upset you. Some people believe that their partner should know what’s wrong without them saying it.
  • Aggressive manipulation – This is a toxic motive in which one of the partners uses stonewalling to have things their way. Aggressive manipulation is one of the signs of a toxic relationship.

Other reasons for stonewalling in a relationship include:

  • Feeling hopeless that a resolution cannot be found 
  • Being afraid of where the conversation might lead 
  • Trying to present their partner as unreasonable or emotional
  • A belief that the other party has no desire to resolve the issue
  • An attempt to end the relationship 

How Does Stonewalling Affect a Relationship?

No relationship is immune to conflicts. However, if you or your partner handles every argument by refusing to speak, it can cause serious issues in the relationship. 

  • Isolates both partners – Refusing to talk may result in both partners withdrawing from each other. It can then create a sense of isolation that can lead to emotional disconnection.
  • Lead to more conflicts – Those who are stonewalled may get extremely frustrated or do something desperate to stop the silent treatment. This can then cause conflicts to escalate out of control, resulting in more arguments and problems. 
  • Can end the relationship – When this becomes a habit, it can eventually ruin and end the relationship. Researchers from the Gottman Institute suggest that when women are stonewalling, it often happens before a divorce.
  • Negatively affects your health – According to a study, stonewalling or shutting down during conflicts is associated with backaches, muscle aches, and neck stiffness. It has also been linked to other physical reactions like rapid heart rate and elevated blood pressure.

Is Stonewalling a Form of Abuse?

While stonewalling isn’t always caused by toxicity, it can be used alongside other toxic behaviors, like constant criticism or isolation. In this case, stonewalling is a form of abuse. And when you’re in an abusive relationship, stonewalling may also be used frequently to avoid the issues the abusive partner doesn’t want to confront. 

A stonewaller may create an imbalance of power by deciding when and how you will communicate. In cases where there is infidelity in a relationship, a cheating spouse or partner may use stonewalling to shut down any discussion about the affair.

If stonewalling in a relationship becomes constant and deliberate, it can affect your self-esteem and make you feel hopeless. Despite your effort to improve communication, the relationship isn’t likely to survive if one partner continuously stonewalls or withdraws from conversations. 

What to Do If Your Partner is Stonewalling You

Stonewalling can get in the way of a happy, healthy relationship. Here are some of the things you can do if you notice stonewalling in your partner.

  • Soften the way you present an issue

Even if you feel like your partner is at fault, avoid judging or evaluating. Describe what you see in the situation and be respectfully direct when voicing your concerns. You can start discussions with ‘I’ statements to have a collaborative conversation without making accusations.

  • Check your side of the situation

Stonewalling can be a defense strategy to avoid negative reactions. Think of your behavior to make sure that you’re not part of the reason your partner behaves this way. Do you constantly attack, criticize, or look down on your partner? These behaviors, along with a lack of empathy, can promote stonewalling. 

  • Communicate effectively

Tell your partner that you want to help. Make sure not to force them to open up just let them know that you’re always ready to listen. You can also ask them how you can help when they refuse to speak next time. 

  • Take care of yourself

Being stonewalled can make you feel hurt, angry, and confused. It can affect both your physical and mental health, making you feel exhausted, neglected, and hopeless, so it makes sense to be kind to yourself and take time to soothe your bothered feelings. Deep breathing, watching a good movie, or trying a new hobby can help.

What to Do If You’re the One Who’s Stonewalling

If you, on the other hand, realize that you’re the one who’s stonewalling when conflicts arise, here are some of the things you can do.

  • Pay attention to your body 

Be aware of the signs that you are about to shut down or stonewall someone. It could be a fluttering feeling in your stomach, a lump in your throat, or burning in your chest. Recognizing these signs can help you know when it’s time to take a break and figure out how to effectively cope with the situation.

  • Self-soothe

Reduce your risk of stonewalling next time by taking a step back and gathering yourself. Choose an activity that can help you self-soothe before going back to a difficult conversation. You can do this by meditating, taking deep breaths, listening to music, or going for a walk. 

  • Try writing down your thoughts

In some cases, it is easier to express difficult feelings by writing them down instead of talking. You can think hard about what you want to say and omit words that don’t sound right. Writing is a good starting point, but it is also important that you’ll be able to move forward to having an actual conversation. 

 Final Thoughts

When stonewalling exists in a relationship, there might be some unresolved issues and emotions that need to be tackled. It takes time and effort from both partners to work together and look at each other to understand what they contribute to the relationship. Therapy can help, especially in understanding why stonewalling happens.  

If one of your resorts to stonewalling, both of you can benefit from changing the way you communicate or deal with conflict. Couples therapy or counseling can be helpful in improving communication skills and understanding the emotional needs of one another. It can also help you explore the reasons behind stonewalling behaviors and give tools/strategies for expressing difficult emotions better.

Stonewalling as a coping mechanism can be managed by being open to change and with the help of a therapist. If it is, however, constant and done to punish or manipulate the other party, it can have damaging effects. Individual therapy can help you cope with the effects of stonewalling or figure out why you’re using this tactic and make a change.

A great thing about therapy is that you don’t even need to drive to a therapist’s office. Online therapy platforms like Calmerry allow you to get the necessary help and support from virtually anywhere. You can learn more about therapy before your first session.