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What Is Stonewalling? The Conflict Style That Can Ruin Relationships Over Time

Distant Couple on a Dock
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When the going gets tough, one response might be to run into the face of the crisis and deal with it head-on. On the other hand, sometimes people deal with stressful events in the opposite way: by freezing up and putting up a wall between themselves and the daunting issue at hand, whether consciously or subconsciously. This kind of response is called stonewalling. 

When you're in a relationship with someone who regularly stonewalls—or are prone to stonewalling yourself—it's likely proactive communication is a challenge. Stonewalling can have troubling effects on relationships, but experts tell us there are ways to work around it. 

What is stonewalling in relationships?

Stressful situations can lead to poor coping mechanisms or behaviors, and a common one is stonewalling—also known as the silent treatment. 

"Stonewalling is when, during an argument or disagreement, someone begins to shut down, withdraw from the conversation, and build a wall between themselves and the other person," explains trauma-informed psychotherapist Ludine Pierre, LPCC.

She says this tends to happen when the disagreement leaves you flooded with emotions or causes you to experience uncomfortable physiological responses. 

"In the moment, it might look like ignoring the other person, tuning out, or distracting yourself with another activity," Pierre tells mbg, with the goal of creating emotional distance between you and your partner. 

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Examples of stonewalling. 

To better understand what it means to be stonewalled, sex therapist and founder of The Center for Modern Relationships Michelle Herzog, LMFT, CST, says to think of your partner in this state as a literal stone wall. "A question I love to ask people in these moments is, 'When you talk to a wall, does it talk back?' The answer is most definitely no."

During this time, understand you won't be able to get through to them. "They have shut you out and will not communicate in any way with you," Herzog says. 

Here are a few examples of behavior your partner may exhibit when stonewalling: 

  • Giving the silent treatment
  • Abruptly walking away
  • Avoiding conflict
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Acting busy or abruptly moving on to another task
  • Minimizing your concerns
  • Aggressive body language, like eye-rolling or scowling
  • Defensive communication
  • Avoiding conversations about the problem
  • Engaging in obsessive behaviors
  • Refusing to answer any questions
  • Deflection and placing blame
  • Ignoring you or pretending they don't hear you
  • Simply saying "I'm fine," and nothing else

Why people stonewall. 

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According to Pierre, people may stonewall during conflicts as a defense mechanism for self-preservation. When that occurs, here's what she says is happening inside your body. 

After a conflict thrusts us into fight, flight, fawn, or freeze mode, our ability to reason goes out the window. That's because the prefrontal cortex (the region at the front of your brain) checks out, and the amygdala—your brain's fear center or "alarm system"—takes over, signaling your body to escape the triggering situation. 

You're likely feeling quite stressed, so your body is activated, your blood is pumping, and your heart rate is increasing. "Not engaging with or ignoring the other person can make us feel like we're in control again," says Pierre, "so stonewalling is often used to regain some semblance of vindication, maybe even power." 

But that's not the only reason people resort to this behavior. Sometimes, she says, people stonewall to seek relief because they truly "feel stuck and are unable to engage with the other person in a meaningful and rational way." 

Herzog points out that stonewalling "directly stops whatever confrontation is happening," so it really can provide a sense of relief to the disgruntled person, even if it's to their partner's detriment. 

"[Stonewalling] is not effective or sustainable, and over time will erode any relationship," Pierre asserts. 

However, complicated life experiences often make defensive behaviors hard to avoid. "It's important to remember that when we don't learn how to communicate properly within our relationships, we turn to the 'skill' we may have learned in order to survive in the past," Herzog explains. 

That's why she thinks stonewalling typically shows up later in relationships: If a couple has worked on communication long term with little to no improvement, "stonewalling becomes the mechanism one or both partners turn to during an argument to get away from the pain and stress of what they're feeling."

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Why it's such a problem in relationships. 

According to clinical psychologist John Gottman, Ph.D., and his more than 40 years of work with divorce prediction and marital stability, stonewalling can be downright toxic for relationships—and an indicator that the relationship is likely to end. 

While it's OK to take space from your partner or an issue before discussing it, stonewalling shows a desire to detach from the relationship and conflict resolution. It can affect both partners physiologically, and it often escalates conflicts because of the reaction it elicits from the stonewalled person. 

Herzog says Gottman's research indicates that the way partners argue truly matters to the long-term success of their relationship. Stonewalling doesn't contribute anything positive. Instead, it creates an emotional disconnect between you and your partner. "It's the epitome of turning away from the person you love, which can feel painful and frustrating." 

Plus, stonewalling prevents couples from working together, so unaddressed core issues can easily snowball and break down what's left of your foundation.

To describe the communication issues his research predicts can end a relationship, Gottman dubbed them through a metaphor, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—love edition. Stonewalling is one of those four horsemen, which have been found to lead to breakups, alongside criticism, contempt, and defensiveness.

When stonewalling occurs, Pierre notes that Gottman's extensive research suggests both partners experience:

  • A decreased ability to process information (e.g., reduced hearing and peripheral vision).
  • Increased defensiveness.
  • A limited capacity for creative problem-solving.
  • A reduced ability to listen and empathize.

How to stop stonewalling if it's something you do: 

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1. Listen to your body.

"Understand what your threshold for discomfort is and listen to it," advises Pierre. To prevent yourself from stonewalling, let your awareness serve as a clue for when it's time to take a break. 

And during this pause, Pierre says to do exactly that. "There's no sense in thinking about what you were previously arguing about. It will only continue to keep your physiological response escalated," which makes you more upset.

When your body is activated and your "reasoning mind is on a coffee break," Pierre thinks it's best not to push through the conversation.

2. Signal for a timeout.

To minimize the chance of stonewalling during the next crisis, Pierre suggests coming up with a sign or signal ahead of time that communicates your need to step back and gather yourself. "It takes about 20 minutes for your body to return to baseline, so pick an activity that will help you self-soothe before going back in for that difficult conversation."

You can:

  • Take deep breaths.
  • Go for a walk or run. 
  • Take a hot bath.
  • Meditate.
  • Listen to music.
  • Stretch or practice yoga.

It's essential to agree on how you want to take this break beforehand, so one person doesn't feel abandoned or confused. This is a break to get your nervous system calm to be able to continue the conversation in a healthy way. 

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3. Take accountability.

If you're stonewalling, that's a sign you may be uncomfortable with the situation or what is being said. "But remember you may be impacting the other person as a result of not effectively communicating as well," says Pierre.

Instead of shutting down, she recommends trying to work with your partner when you're calm to come up with a plan you both can agree to.

4. Let a therapist help.

Once stonewalling begins to take place in a relationship, Herzog says "it's likely there are years of unresolved pain that need to be addressed." To get through it together and work toward positive change, she notes, "it takes a willingness to look at yourself, including what you've contributed to the relationship."

Herzog says a couples' therapist can help. Inviting a partner to attend couples' therapy with you can feel scary and overwhelming, so start by customizing this script Herzog provides:

"I've been worried about our relationship for a while, and I really feel like we deserve the opportunity to work on our marriage in a space that supports both of us. Are you open to going to couples' therapy together?"

If this feels daunting, you can simply say something like, "Hey, I feel so sad about how we've been fighting. I want to do better. Would you see a therapist with me so we can learn?"

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5. Show each other grace.

Finally, show yourself and your partner grace.

"Finding a way to communicate effectively is not a linear process, and it might feel wobbly and awkward at first," shares Pierre. But she says the key is to release any judgments you may have and stick to the facts of the situation.

What to do when someone is stonewalling you. 

Both experts state that the best way to react to a stonewalling partner is to end the conversation or argument ASAP. "This is a great opportunity for you to walk away and collect yourself before coming back to your partner," says Herzog. 

When you're ready to reengage, leading with empathy is the ideal approach. You can try Herzog's example: "I know these conversations can overwhelm you, and I'm here to listen." 

Pierre also stresses the importance of actually tuning in to what's going on with your partner and calling out what you notice in a calm, nonjudgmental way. If your partner isn't ready to let their wall down and needs space, she says to honor their request to take a break—because there's no room for egos if you want to deescalate the situation and move forward.

"While you're probably experiencing your own feelings as a result of being [stonewalled], expressing that when someone is flooded may not be effective," Pierre says.

Instead, take a break, then come back to discuss it when everyone's calm and open to receive feedback. 

Herzog says it's important for the couple to be able to discuss the stonewalling behavior at some point, though, so that boundaries can be set around what forms of communication are and aren't acceptable during conflicts. 

The bottom line.

Stonewalling is a behavior that can greatly contribute to the end of a relationship when left unchecked. It's destructive for both partners, and it doesn't foster the safe and vulnerable communication required to sustain a relationship long-term. When stonewalling is happening, experts recommend both partners take a break from the conversation to calm their senses and then return to continue talking when they're ready. 

"The best thing you can do is reengage in a way that supports positive communication," Herzog says, with an emphasis on understanding what each partner can do differently.

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