What Is Stonewalling?

  Wednesday, November 3, 2021
Contributed by Dr. Carrie Jackson

When faced with an argument or conflict, it can bring out the worst in people. Some people might respond with a discussion where they sort out their concerns and problems in an effective way, being curious and open to the other person’s point of view. Others might end up becoming more aggressive, where they yell and argue and use intimidation tactics. Another way of responding to conflict is through stonewalling. Stonewalling is a communication tactic used when someone refuses to communicate how they are feeling or thinking in an attempt to avoid conflict. Metaphorically, stonewalling is building up a wall between two people when having a discussion. And stonewalling can have serious consequences for all those who are involved.

Within this article, you’ll learn more about what stonewalling is in detail so that you can recognize it when you see it. Additionally, you'll learn about the negative effects that stonewalling can have and what you can do if you encounter stonewalling. 

What Is Stonewalling?

Stonewalling, or the building up of a wall between you and another person metaphorically, refers to a way that some people respond to conflict or discussions with someone. When someone uses stonewalling, they may shut down, withdraw from the conversation by removing themselves physically, or not respond verbally to attempts to engage in the conversation. People who use stonewalling will tune out information, appear to not be listening, may turn their body away, or even leave the room.

Stonewalling is part of a relationship dynamic that is called the demand-withdraw interaction. In this type of interaction, one person in the relationship makes a demand because they want to discuss an issue or make a request within the relationship. The other person, the stonewaller, then responds by withdrawing, not responding, or emotionally and verbally limiting their responses. Sometimes, stonewalling can reach the extent to it is even completely the silent treatment, where a partner refuses to respond to the other.

Stonewalling can often start very subtly and you may not even realize that you are experiencing it. Over time, it is much more common for stonewalling to become more blatant and escalate from its subtle origins. Because of this, you want to make sure that you are able to spot the signs of stonewalling from the early stages of a relationship. If you don’t, it can be hard to switch the patterns over time as they have become much more ingrained. 

Therefore, it’s really important to want to make sure that you can spot the signs as early as possible. Here are some signs of stonewalling:

  • Averting eye contact
  • Shutting out potential conversations
  • Not answering questions or refusing to answer questions
  • Changing the topic away from the conflict
  • Leaving the room or walking away quickly without giving a time that you will be returning
  • Leaving the house and not giving any indication of when they will return
  • Using body language cues to respond rather than verbally responding
  • Eye rolling, closing their eyes
  • Being passive aggressive in responses
  • Responding with sarcasm or muttering under their breath

 

Often when people stonewall, they refuse to admit that they ever did use stonewalling. Instead, they will suggest that it was necessary and they had to do so in the moment. In the next section, we will discuss some of the reasons why people stonewall. Although sometimes it may be on purpose, many times it is a natural defense mechanism that has developed over time.

Why Do People Stonewall

Stonewalling is not always intentional. Some people will use stonewalling as a defense mechanism to respond to tough times of conflict. For people who are conflict averse, it is the easiest way to manage conflict and uncomfortable feelings. It may also be unintentionally used as a way to try to reduce the tension that is occurring in conflict or in an argument. Similarly, someone who stonewalls may do so because they believe that by discussing things with their partner, there is no way that it will be resolved. They may believe that their partner does not care to resolve the conflict and so they stonewall as a means of dealing with that distress.

Other people who are stonewalling may do so intentionally, with the hopes of affecting the other person who is in the discussion or argument with them. When used this way, people may stonewall because they want to manipulate the other person. They may want to use stonewalling as a way for the other person to escalate in their response. Or, they may hope that stonewalling the conversation will bring the conflict to a crisis, which will ultimately lead to conflict resolution.

To some extent, stonewalling is understandable. It can be uncomfortable to deal with conflict or to know how to deal with conflict effectively. Additionally, when in conflict, it does cause an increase in our stress response, making our heart rates increase, eyes dilate, and blood pressure rise. A healthy response can be to walk away momentarily or to take some time to take a break. However, stonewalling becomes problematic when it becomes extended and lasts for a longer time.

Types of Relationships Stonewalling Occurs In

Stonewalling can occur in any type of relationship. Often, people hear of stonewalling occurring in romantic relationships, when there is an argument between a couple. But it is important to note that stonewalling can occur in any relationship, between anyone. Stonewalling can occur in friendships as well, when disagreements happen between two friends. In family relationships, stonewalling can occur between parents and their children and vice versa as well. Even outside of family, friends, and romantic relationships, it’s also possible for stonewalling to occur in work relationships. 

There is some research indicating that men are more likely than women to stonewall; however, stonewalling can occur across anyone. In fact, the same study found that 85% of those who used stonewalling were men, whereas women were more likely to continue to engage in the discussion emotionally with their partners. This may be in part because of how women are socialized to engage emotionally with their partners and also to be more social. On the other hand, men are more often socialized to not show their emotions, so they may respond by shutting down their emotions. 

As discussed earlier, stonewalling often occurs in a demand-withdraw interaction in a relationship. These types of interactions are also common in relationships where one person has an anxious attachment style and the other has an avoidant attachment style. There are four primary attachment styles: anxious, avoidant, secure, and disorganized. In the next section, I’ll discuss how the anxious and avoidant attachment styles, particularly when there is a romantic relationship involving the two, is much more susceptible to experiencing stonewalling.

Individuals with anxious attachment styles are often preoccupied with the relationship, crave intimacy and closeness, and are highly attuned to and responsive to their partner. People with anxious attachment styles can be highly anxious in relationships, having a significant fear of abandonment, and often using closeness and developing intimacy as a way to remedy their fears of being abandoned. While they want significant closeness, at the same time they are afraid of it because it leads to anxiety many times.

People who fall within an avoidant attachment style are often fearful of close intimate relationships, describe themselves as independent, and tend to view themselves in a very positive light. Although they may be fearful of close relationships and do things to avoid them, deep down they also deeply care for and want a close intimate relationship with a partner. Despite their yearning for an emotionally close partner, they have trouble allowing those to see them as vulnerable, avoid difficult conversations, and prefer their independence over close relationships. Neither of these attachment styles are inherently bad, but rather they are just different ways of interacting with others.

Although anxious and avoidant attachments are on opposite ends as far as what they want in a relationship as far as emotional closeness, they often find themselves together in an emotional or romantic relationship. Because of their opposing views, this has even been termed as the anxious avoidant trap. Within the anxious avoidant attachment trap, the anxiously attached partner finds themselves wanting closeness and emotional intimacy and asking for that emotional connection within the relationship. The anxious partner is always looking for a more emotional relationship and closeness in that relationship so they may even make a request or do things to become closer to their partner. In contrast, the avoidant attachment partner perceives the anxious partner’s attempts at achieving closeness as threatening to their independence. The avoidant attachment partner becomes uncomfortable with this level of emotional intimacy, finding that it triggers their need to be alone and have space. In response to this feeling, the avoidant attachment partner may withdraw, or stonewall, in a way to find their own space within the relationship. This then triggers the anxious partner’s need for emotional closeness and they may find a way to try and become closer to their partner again, resulting in their avoidant partner stonewalling further. Over time, the anxiously attached partner will also withdraw, paradoxically pulling the avoidantly attached partner back in. 

This type of chase or trap can repeat itself over and over. At different times, each partner may withdraw from the relationship and stonewall the other partner. Each partner triggers the attachment style of the other, yet being triggered within the relationship often leads to each of the partners wanting to be closer to the other or continuing to be invested in the relationship. This may even happen on an unconscious level, with each partner unintentionally finding the amount of space that suits them best and makes them feel the best.

Stonewalling can realistically happen between partners with any attachment styles. However, if you are in a relationship where one partner has an anxious attachment style and the other has an avoidant attachment style, it can be much more common to have a partner engage in stonewalling. Overall, stonewalling can have a negative effect on any relationship. There are even some concerns that stonewalling is actually a type of abuse.

Is Stonewalling Abuse?

Stonewalling is emotionally painful and can be devastating. Whether or not it constitutes abuse within a relationship, depends on the specific situations and factors within your own relationship. Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior in which one partner uses mean words, criticism, and controlling behaviors that belittle and impact the other partner’s self-esteem. Emotional abuse can be very subtle and hard to spot. Additionally, it can often grow over time by starting with a few critical comments that often lead to more and more changes and negative behavior in the future. If your partner is using stonewalling in addition to other manipulative tactics, such as gaslighting or criticism, it may be worth exploring your relationship with a therapist. In some cases, stonewalling can simply be a learned defense mechanism that your partner is working through and they don’t want it to have negative effects on you. In this case, it may be helpful for you and your partner to attend therapy together to come up with alternative ways of communicating during conflict. 

Effects of Stonewalling

When stonewalling does occur, it can have significant effects for all of those involved and within the relationship. Stonewalling can affect everyone within a relationship, as well as the relationship itself. Overall, stonewalling only has short-term positive effects for the person who is using the stonewalling. For the other person as well as the relationship, it has negative effects.

For the person who is doing the stonewalling, they are experiencing heightened physiological stress that leads them to stonewall in the first place. Since they are using stonewalling as a response to this discomfort, they are unable to truly express their emotions, feelings, and needs in a relationship. Even though in the short-term they may feel some relief from avoiding conflict, over time this avoidance will actually lead to more distress as conflict continues to pile up. This is again why people often continue to use stonewalling. It does have the positive effect of a short-term relief of anxiety-related to managing conflict which maintains the use of stonewalling for the person who is using stonewalling.

The person who is receiving the stonewalling is also subject to intense negative emotional effects. Research has shown that the person who experiences stonewalling can also undergo physiological distress (e.g., higher heart rate and blood pressure) and be more susceptible to stress, anxiety, and depression. Women are also much more likely to experience negative side effects of stonewalling in comparison to men. Stress and anxiety often develop when someone is worried about future events or what could possibly happen in the future. Stonewalling can lead to increased anxiety and stress as the person who receives it is often worried about how arguments and future discussions will go with their partner. If they believe that their partner will never want to address any conflict with them, they may stop bringing up concerns altogether.

Within the relationship, they may also feel like they cannot share how they actually feel with their partner and may not develop the intimacy or closeness that they desire. They may avoid bringing up concerns within the relationship or being vulnerable because of a fear that when they do bring up these concerns, it will inadvertently push the other person away. When neither partner is available or willing to express their feelings within a relationship, it is hard to deepen a relationship.

The person who experiences stonewalling may also end up feeling that they lack value or importance within their relationship. They may feel that their partner’s response to difficult conversations of stonewalling signals that addressing conflict within the relationship is not important. Even if this is not the goal of the person who is stonewalling, it still may result in these feelings for the person who is being stonewalled. Because they feel like they do not matter to the other person, this can have lasting effects on the relationship.

There’s a reason why relationship expert Dr. John Gottmann termed stonewalling as one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse for relationships. It can have lasting negative effects on a relationship that sometimes can’t be fixed. When one or both partners use stonewalling, it can lead to decreased relationship satisfaction as neither partner is able to truly reveal their feelings to each other. Over time, stonewalling can lead to decreased communication and less effective communication strategies within a relationship.

When people do use stonewalling, they often do so as a way to deescalate a situation or to avoid conflict. In reality, stonewalling usually doesn’t lead to any changes in the conflict. In fact, it may actually increase conflict over time as problems are frequently pushed to the side and never actually addressed. To this end, stonewalling can create additional conflict within relationships due to not handling disagreements or discussions in a way that helps to solve communication issues. In fact, stonewalling typically leads to less creative problem solving as a couple and much more defensiveness over time.

Stonewalling when used for either women or men often leads to relationship deterioration over time. For women who use stonewalling, it significantly predicts divorce. This is again why stonewalling has been named one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse by relationship expert, Dr. John Gottman. His groundbreaking research has found that stonewalling behavior is predictive of divorce, and that couples who use stonewalling end up in divorce approximately 90% of the time. If you don’t want your relationship to end up with stonewalling or you are currently dealing with stonewalling within your relationship, the next sections will help you figure out what you can do to come back from it. 

How to Handle Being Stonewalled

When you are on the receiving end of being stonewalled, it is really challenging, uncomfortable, and can cause significant emotional distress. Over time, this can even lead to anxiety and depression for those who are experiencing it. Learning how to handle the effects of stonewalling involves managing your own emotional reactions, learning how to communicate more effectively with your partner, and then also seeking support if it would be beneficial. Additionally, it’s important to know that sometimes the best thing for you to do is to walk away from a relationship if it no longer is beneficial for you.

1. Recognize It’s Not You

Yes, you have been dealing with stonewalling in your relationship, but since you are not the stonewaller, realize that the problem is not with you. Instead, this likely reflects a frequent pattern that the stonewaller has developed as a way to manage difficult conflict and arguments that arise. It is really hard not to internalize thoughts that if you changed your behavior, the stonewaller wouldn’t act this way. In reality, the stonewaller would likely react in this way no matter what you did because it is the solution that they have come up with for how they are feeling. So, how can you recognize that it isn’t you? The next time that you are with someone who is using stonewalling as a defense mechanism take a look at your thoughts. Are you thinking, “This is  all my fault that they have backed away.” If so, take a closer look at your thoughts and remember, they have developed this pattern of behavior not because of you, but because of their own personal way of coping with challenges and difficult moments. 

2. Don’t Be the Fixer

In order to change patterns of communication, it takes two people to put in the work. With a stonewaller, they are often the ones who detach from the relationship and don’t wish to work on it any longer. If you are the only one who is putting in any effort to work on your communication patterns, the chances are that nothing will ever change. You don’t have to be the only one who is working on problems within your relationship. If you have made several attempts and had open conversations with your partner, then sometimes that is all you can do. If they aren’t willing to change things, then they likely never will be. It might be a good time to detach from the relationship or consider ending the relationship if they are no longer willing to engage in these relationships.

3. Empathize With Them

Addressing the challenge of stonewalling from a place of compassion and curiosity goes a long way rather than addressing it from a place of defensiveness. Take the approach of trying to understand what is going on with your partner and why they may be reacting with stonewalling. In order to show empathy towards them, you can validate their emotions and acknowledge that it’s hard to deal with conflict in a way that is effective. When the other person feels heard, they are much more likely to approach the conversation positively and constructively. Showing empathy helps to establish a secure bond where your partner feels that they can open up to you.

4. Separate Yourself From the Situation

It feels really personal to experience stonewalling. It feels miserable to feel like it is all your fault and that you have caused your partner to retreat. Especially if you are a partner that has an anxious attachment style, this can feel unbearable at times. When you are able to separate yourself from the situation, you are able to evaluate the situation and your partner more effectively rather than engaging emotionally. Remember that your partner’s behavior is a reflection of them rather than of you. If you have an anxious attachment style or are a highly empathetic person, it is likely going to be difficult for you to separate yourself and your feelings from the situation. However, this will ultimately reduce your feelings of stress and help you better work through the conflict with your partner. 

5. Continue Communicating

When you partner reacts by stonewalling in conversations, it can be easy to give into their stonewalling. You might find yourself having difficulty bringing up conversations that are difficult because you want to avoid the stress that comes with stonewalling. This is a normal reaction of course, but unfortunately it leads to more stress and doesn’t solve the initial problem. Instead this means that you are no longer bringing up your needs and difficult conversations won’t develop between you and your partner. This can lead to an unfulfilling relationship where your needs aren’t being met. It is important that you’re able to communicate from a place of understanding rather than a place of defensiveness. One way to communicate your needs more effectively is by bringing up your concerns by using “I” statements. Instead of bringing up concerns by starting with “You” when you start with “I” it takes the stress off of the other person and helps it feel more balanced. They are much less likely to react defensively when concerns are brought up this way too. 

What to Do if You are the Stonewaller

Stonewalling is a pattern that often develops over time, and it lasts because it does bring temporary relief to the person who is using stonewalling. However, if you are ready to change your way of interacting in discussions and stop stonewalling, it is going to take some time to change this pattern. Of course the solution to stopping stonewalling is to not do it, but there are some concrete strategies that you can use to change your behaviors over time. 

1. Acknowledge the Issue

Before you can move into changing your behavior, it’s first important that you are going to acknowledge the issue that you are having. Until you are able to recognize that you are using stonewalling, you won’t be able to address it because you don’t realize it is happening. If you are reading through this article with the signs of stonewalling and feel as if you may be using stonewalling at times, it can be helpful to address it with your partner. Let them know that you have recognized that you are using stonewalling and the reasons why you have been using stonewalling. This will let them know that you are committed to changing your behavior and they will appreciate your honesty. 

2. Know When It’s Time for a Break

Stonewallers typically respond automatically by taking a break, withdrawing, and not paying attention or reflecting on what is going on in their surroundings. This means that you may often miss cues that you are feeling stressed and are in need of a break. One of the first ways to change stonewalling is to pick up on the cues that it may actually be time to take a break. Some common signs that it may be time for a break is that you know yourself becoming less vocal in the discussion, you start to feel stressed, and you start tuning out your partner. Everyone has different cues that they are going to be stonewalling, so start to learn when your cues are. You may even ask your partner for help with identifying some of these clues that you may be withdrawing from the conversation.

3. Use a Code Word

If you do need a break, it’s important that you communicate this with your partner rather than just leaving abruptly. Leaving abruptly or not providing any indication that you are actually wanting to work things out can create unnecessary stress and anxiety in the person who is on the other side of the discussion. At the same time, it can be hard to fully assert yourself and say that you need a break or need some time to talk. If this is true in your case, it can be helpful to identify a code word that you can use when you need a break. When you are feeling like you need a break, you can say the code word to your partner before taking a break. This is also helpful to use in public situations where it may be less easy to take a physical break when you need it.

4. Establish Set Times for Your Break

It can create a lot of anxiety in your partner if you leave for a break or withdraw without a set time to come back. If you don’t have a set time, this may make them think that you will not come back to address the conflict. When you need a break, it is important to take some time to yourself; however, you should let your partner know approximately how long you will need a break for. Even if it is just an estimate, come up with a time where you will come back and can engage again in the conversation. This could be 5 minutes, 15 minutes, or even an hour. Over time you will start to realize approximately how much time you need for a break before returning and this will help accomplish your need for some space while also reassuring your partner.

5. Learn How to Defuse In Conflict

Since a stonewaller often stonewalls in an effort to defuse and deescalate conflict, an important step is finding ways to defuse a conflict without removing yourself entirely. One way to do this is by finding ways to address the conflict in an assertive way, rather than passively through stonewalling. To address conflict assertively, you should calmly and neutrally express your own opinions while also listening to the needs of your partner. You can also use I statements, like were suggested above to communicate more effectively with your partner.

6. Relax on Your Break

The reason that you need a break or use stonewalling is because your body is stressed and physiologically escalates as a result of the stress. It often takes your body at least 20 minutes to calm down from the physiological stress, and during this time, it is important to do things that will calm your nervous system. During your break, you should relax by imagining a calm space that is relaxing. Using visual imagery in this way can help your body come back to the present moment. When imagining a calming space, you should utilize all five of your senses to really be mindful of your body and emotions in the moment. To bring yourself back into your body, you should also utilize diaphragmatic breathing. Given that when you are stressed, your breath often becomes shallow, diaphragmatic breathing will help deepen your breathing and calm down your nervous system.

Therapy for Stonewalling

If you aren’t able to address issues of stonewalling within a relationship yourself, it may be helpful to pursue couples counseling or therapy in order to find strategies where you can effectively communicate. Having a therapist or counselor work with you on your relationship issues can help provide an impartial and unbiased opinion of what is going on. At the same time, a mental health professional can help couples learn more effective ways of dealing with their conflict than resorting to other communication tactics.

Finding a therapist can be challenging, particularly when you are looking to find someone who can help you with something as vulnerable as your relationship challenges. You want to make sure that you find a therapist who can address the issues that you are having while also understanding your unique challenges. When looking for a therapist, it can be helpful to find a therapist through an online directory such as PsychologyToday or through your insurance panel. Often, you are able to search for potential therapists based on their areas of expertise. Unfortunately, many insurance panels do not cover couples counseling through insurance so you may have to use out-of-network payment for couples therapy. It will still be money worth it if you can address these challenges now while developing better communication strategies for the long run. For more information on how to find a good therapist, you can check out this article.

Luckily, there are many therapists who are also able to offer therapy online, which can help reduce some of the barriers to attending couples counseling. While it is hard to coordinate schedules between a therapist and client, it can be even more difficult when you have several people involved who are all trying to find the best time that works for them. Additionally, with online therapy, you are able to see your therapist from the comfort of your own home and also from anywhere within your state. Because of this, an online therapist can be a great fit for couples counseling. At the same time, not seeing a therapist in person does have some drawbacks. When therapists are able to see you in person, they can pick up easier on nonverbal cues and interactions between you and your partner. If you do end up deciding on pursuing therapy, there are many ways to find one. Check out this guide on finding an online therapist to help you get started.

Overcoming Stonewalling

Whether or not you are the person experiencing stonewalling or the person who is doing the stonewalling, it often takes a good amount of time to fully recover and change your patterns of communication within a relationship. With any challenges related to self esteem and relationships, it’s important to remember that healing is not always linear, and there can be challenges that come and go within your communication and relationships. Now that you have read this guide, you already have a much clearer idea on what stonewalling is and how you can help yourself or your partner if they are experiencing it. 

About Dr. Carrie Jackson

Dr. Carrie Jackson is a contributor of JournalOwl. Her primary interests are to increase access to evidence-based mental health treatments for children and adolescents, providing specific information to parents and individuals with ADHD.

Carrie is a graduate of West Virginia University with a doctoral degree in Psychology, and a specialization in Clinical Child Psychology. Carrie has worked as a therapist and evaluator at several children’s hospitals, providing care and treatment to clients with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and anxiety. She has also worked with children with chronic medical conditions, providing supportive mental health care to children with cancer and burn survivors. 

Although originally from South Carolina, Carrie has lived in two countries and four states. She enjoys hiking, traveling, and trying new recipes.

Health Disclaimer

JournalOwl is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, medication, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptoms or conditions. JournalOwl is not authorized to make recommendations about medication or serve as a substitute for professional advice. You should never disregard professional psychological or medical advice, or delay in seeking treatment, based on anything you read on JournalOwl’s website or platform.

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