Stonewalling isolates people in a relationship by creating a barrier between the two partners.
Illustration by Marta Pucci

What is Stonewalling?

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Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
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Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Laura Vowels,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
Last updated:

In the landscape of relationship dynamics, few behaviours are as silently destructive as stonewalling. This is why it is called one of the 'Four Horsemen' according to relationship expert John Gottman.

Stonewalling occurs when one person withdraws from an interaction, shutting down dialogue and creating a barrier of silence that can feel impenetrable and isolating. This behaviour is not just about avoiding a conversation; it's about evading emotional engagement and connectivity, making it a critical concept to understand in the context of maintaining healthy relationships.

The psychological impact of stonewalling is profound. When one partner consistently responds to conflict or stress by withdrawing, the other is left feeling rejected, unimportant, and alone, which can escalate emotional distress and resentment. This breakdown in communication often leads to a vicious cycle of pursuit and retreat, with one partner pressing for resolution or engagement, and the other pulling away to avoid discomfort, thereby intensifying the problem. Understanding the mechanics of stonewalling and its effects is essential not only for relationship longevity but for the emotional health of both partners involved. Recognizing and addressing this behaviour can prevent a temporary rift from becoming a permanent divide.

Examples of Stonewalling

Stonewalling is a defensive communication tactic used when an individual refuses to engage in conversation or respond to communication efforts. It is characterized by silence or non-responsiveness and can be both a conscious or unconscious behavior. Typically, stonewalling is used as a means to avoid conflict, control the conversation, or evade emotional exchanges that are perceived as threatening. It differs from mere quietness or times when someone needs space to think; stonewalling is an active disengagement used to shut down dialogue.

Examples of Stonewalling Behavior in Different Contexts:

  • In Romantic Relationships: During an argument, one partner might suddenly become silent and refuse to respond to any attempts at communication from the other. This can include ignoring texts, walking out of the room, or even pretending not to hear the other person's attempts to talk.
  • In Family Dynamics: A parent may stonewall a child or teenager as punishment or as a way to avoid discussing difficult topics. This might manifest as giving the 'silent treatment' after a dispute, or not acknowledging the child's statements or questions.
  • In the Workplace: An employee may stonewall a colleague or supervisor to avoid engagement on a project or feedback session. This can look like consistently not replying to emails, skipping meetings where the topic is discussed, or giving minimal, non-committal responses to direct questions.

In all these contexts, stonewalling serves as a protective mechanism for the person engaging in it, often stemming from an inability to process and communicate complex emotions. However, the impact on relationships can be devastating, as it prevents the resolution of conflicts and fosters a sense of alienation and frustration among those on the receiving end.

The Psychological Underpinnings of Stonewalling

Stonewalling often stems from intense emotional states that an individual finds overwhelming or unbearable. Common emotional triggers include feeling cornered, criticized, or overpowered in a discussion, leading to a defensive shutdown as a form of self-preservation. This behavior is deeply rooted in the psychological principle of emotional flooding, where the person's emotional arousal levels become so heightened that they are unable to process information and respond rationally. This is akin to the body's fight-or-flight response, activated not by physical danger, but by emotional threats. When overwhelmed, the default response for some is to 'flee' by stonewalling, which temporarily relieves the stress of confrontation but does not resolve the underlying issue.

In psychological terms, stonewalling can also be seen as a learned defensive communication style that a person might have adopted early in life, possibly modeled by caregivers or developed as a survival strategy in high-conflict environments. Understanding these underpinnings is crucial for addressing and modifying this behavior, as it involves both unlearning deeply ingrained habits and developing new, healthier communication tactics.

The Impact of Stonewalling in Relationships

The effects of stonewalling in relationships are profound and far-reaching. Initially, it may serve as a quick escape from conflict, but over time, it erodes the foundational elements of trust and openness that are essential for a healthy relationship. Partners of those who stonewall often feel isolated and invalidated, experiencing a deep emotional disconnect that is hard to bridge. This feeling of abandonment can lead to resentment, which if unchecked, accumulates and intensifies feelings of loneliness and dissatisfaction.

The long-term impact on emotional intimacy is particularly damaging; stonewalling prevents the growth of deeper understanding and mutual respect. Relationship satisfaction plummets as both partners struggle to feel heard and valued. Moreover, repeated stonewalling can lead to a pattern where one partner continually pushes for emotional engagement and the other retreats, creating a cycle of conflict avoidance and pursuit that can be difficult to break. Addressing stonewalling is thus not just about improving communication—it’s about restoring intimacy and trust, which are critical for a fulfilling relationship.

Identifying Stonewalling

Recognizing stonewalling in oneself or others is crucial for addressing and preventing the negative effects it has on relationships. Key signs include:

  • Silent Treatment: Deliberately ignoring the other person, not speaking, or responding to their attempts to communicate.
  • Physical Withdrawal: Leaving the room or creating physical distance during a conversation.
  • Changing the Subject: Routinely shifting discussions away from emotionally charged topics.
  • Minimal Responses: Offering brief, unengaged responses like "Fine" or "I don’t know," without contributing to the conversation.

It’s important to distinguish stonewalling from other defensive behaviors such as defensiveness or contempt. While defensiveness involves justifying oneself and often escalating the conflict, stonewalling shuts down any dialogue, preventing further escalation but also resolution. Contempt, on the other hand, includes sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, and eye-rolling, which are active, hurtful responses designed to belittle or dominate the other person. Stonewalling, by contrast, is characterized by passivity and avoidance.

Strategies to Deal with Stonewalling

For Individuals Who Stonewall:

  • Self-awareness is Key: Recognize when you begin to feel overwhelmed and are tempted to shut down. Acknowledging this tendency is the first step in changing the behavior.
  • Develop Communication Skills: Learn to express when you feel overwhelmed and need a break. Phrases like, “I’m feeling too much right now, can we revisit this in a few hours?” can be invaluable.
  • Seek Professional Help: Therapy can provide strategies for managing emotional responses and improving communication skills.

For Partners of Those Who Stonewall:

  • Stay Calm: When faced with stonewalling, maintain a calm and composed demeanor. Escalating the situation with anger or frustration often deepens the disconnection.
  • Use Gentle Start-up: Begin conversations with softness and care, avoiding blame. Start with “I feel” statements and express needs in a positive way.
  • Encourage Open Dialogue: When your partner is ready to talk, encourage open and honest communication, emphasizing that you are there to listen and understand, not to judge or argue. The conversation sessions in the Blueheart app are designed to make difficult conversations easier.
  • Consider Couples Therapy: Sometimes, professional guidance is needed to break the cycle of stonewalling and rebuild communication pathways effectively.

Professional Help and Resources

Recognizing when to seek professional help is crucial in dealing with persistent stonewalling that damages relationship dynamics. If you find that stonewalling is a recurring issue that you cannot resolve on your own, or if it has begun to significantly impact your emotional well-being or that of your partner, it may be time to see help.

Effective Interventions Include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Helps individuals identify and change thought patterns that lead to stonewalling behaviors.
  • Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT): Focuses on developing healthier attachment styles and emotional responsiveness between partners.
  • Communication Workshops: These can provide practical skills and techniques to improve dialogue and understanding in a relationship.

Seeking help from professionals who specialize in relationship dynamics can provide both parties with tools to understand and manage emotional triggers, ultimately helping to foster a more open and supportive relationship.

If you're experiencing Stonewalling from your partner, try downloading the Blueheart app and your plan will have conversation sessions to help take the first step at addressing stonewalling in your relationship.

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