- What is stonewalling and why do some people do it?
- Why do we stonewall in relationships?
- How to recognise stonewalling
- Signs of stonewalling
- What is the effect of stonewalling on a relationship?
- What is the effect on the person who is being stonewalled?
- What is the impact on the person who is stonewalling?
- Is stonewalling a form of emotional abuse?
- Is the silent treatment manipulation?
- What does stonewalling / silent treatment do to a relationship?
- How can you address stonewalling?
- What can you do if someone is stonewalling you?
- What can you do if you realise you are stonewalling someone?
- What if they are unwillingly to change their stonewalling behaviour?
- Get in touch
- Useful contacts
- The Four Horsemen: Stonewalling
- What’s the antidote to stonewalling?
- The Practice of Physiological Self-Soothing
- What can we learn from stonewalling?
- Stonewalling — GoodTherapy.org Therapy Blog
- What Is Stonewalling?
- Is Stonewalling Abuse?
- Find a Therapist
- The Effects of Stonewalling
- Therapy for Stonewalling
What is stonewalling and why do some people do it?
How do we define stonewalling…
Stonewalling in a relationship is when one person refuses to communicate or cooperate with their partner becoming “a stone wall”. You may know it as its more common name, the ‘silent treatment’.
Alternatively stonewalling can mean a partner dismissing everything as if the other person is “making a big deal nothing”, belittling what they say or pretending “everything is fine”, when clearly it is not.
Being stonewalled can be incredibly frustrating for the person on the receiving end as they want to know what is wrong but are unable to get an answer. It can be considered a form of emotional abuse and is often used as a form of control.
Why do we stonewall in relationships?
People stonewall in relationships for a number of different reasons.
For some, it is a way to punish a partner because of something they have done. Often people believe their partner should know what is wrong without them saying it.
Others stonewall as they are not capable of expressing what they are feeling, at times because it is too difficult or painful. Again, people often believe their partner should know what is wrong or be able to figure it out.
It can happen when couples are really busy and get the habit of discussing emotions or when someone is unsure of what they are feeling so it seems easier to say nothing.
Some people may stonewall as it is a habit they have had for a long time, especially those people brought up in an environment where no one said how they were feeling. Or if they did it was met with negative consequences. For some people talking about emotions and feelings can make them feel incredibly anxious and avoidance is a preferable route.
The more sinister side of stonewalling is when it is used with intent, often an attempt by a partner to dominate the relationship by not addressing any issues they prevent you from taking any action.
How to recognise stonewalling
You may not realise that you are being stonewalled. You may not realise that you are stonewalling your partner.
The starting point is to look at your partners and also your own behaviours in the relationship. Take notes in a diary over time to see if patterns emerge.
Listed below are some of the signs of stonewalling in a relationship.
Signs of stonewalling
- They ignore you when you talk and do not respond to any questions (this can last weeks or even months)
- If you start a serious conversation they walk away or start doing something else to get it
- Dismiss your concerns as if they are unimportant
- Make fun of you and patronise what you say when you speak
- Roll their eyes or refuse to make eye contact at all
- Refuse to take responsibility for giving you the silent treatment
What is the effect of stonewalling on a relationship?
Stonewalling has a very destructive effect on a relationship. As a very negative form of communication, it breaks down any intimacy in a relationship leading partners to withdraw from each other. This can easily lead to couples leading very separate lives without any shared activities or interests.
What is the effect on the person who is being stonewalled?
Feeling hurt, angry, confused and frustrated are some of the emotions a person being stonewalled may feel. When someone is being frequently dismissed or ignored, they can begin to devalue themselves which leads to feelings of being helpless, worthless and powerless. This is a natural response particularly as stonewalling is considered a form of gaslighting.
People may find they become confused, dependent and weak making it difficult for them to leave the relationship or they become very angry and leave as quickly as they can. Either way, they may need to seek professional counselling support to heal from the experience.
What is the impact on the person who is stonewalling?
There is no winner as far as stonewalling in a relationship is concerned. The person who is stonewalling also suffers as they are denying themselves the emotional intimacy that can make people really happy. Cutting off from your feelings, withdrawing from social situations and intimacy will make you and your partner miserable.
Is stonewalling a form of emotional abuse?
It is clear that stonewalling is a harmful behaviour in a relationship but is it abusive?
To answer this, it depends on the intent of the person stonewalling. For example, there are many people for whom stonewalling is a learnt response to cope with emotional and difficult issues. They do not want to control or manipulate but instead use it (usually without realising) as a way to protect themselves from feeling uncomfortable.
But this is not always the case and that is when stonewalling is used as something intentionally and abusive.
In these situations, people use it to fight for control in the relationship and often use it alongside tactics such as gaslighting to make their partner feel useless, confused and powerless.
Sometimes referred to as narcissistic stonewalling, it means one person blames the other for all of the issues in the relationship but refuses to fix them.
Is the silent treatment manipulation?
stonewalling, it is the intent behind the use of silent treatment that defines if it is manipulative behaviour. Storming an argument or conversation and then deliberating ignoring them for hours, days even weeks is very unhealthy for relationships; leaving the other person not knowing what they have done.
This is very different from when a partner asks for some time to cool down and find space to collect their emotions during an argument.
What does stonewalling / silent treatment do to a relationship?
When used as a tool to manipulate stonewalling / the silent treatment is destructive. It breaks down the ability to communicate and collaborate with each other. It allows the silent person to transfer attention to appeasing them instead of dealing with the real issues. A regular pattern of this behaviour can be both toxic and abusive.
How can you address stonewalling?
If stonewalling is in your relationship you need to become very aware of what is happening and why.
If you both want a healthy, happy relationship you both need to take responsibility for your behaviour and try to empathise with each other.
There are tips outlined below on how improving communication and counselling can help if you are both willing to make changes.
However, if this is part of a larger emotional abuse issue it is extremely important you take professional advice. The National Domestic Abuse Helpline run by Refuge can be contacted on 0808 2000 247.
If you or anyone else is in danger please call the police immediately.
What can you do if someone is stonewalling you?
If you recognise that your partner is stonewalling you it is useful to take some time to look at both of your behaviours in the relationship. Understanding what motivates both of your behaviours can help to identify what changes can be made to help.
However, it is important that your partner takes responsibility for their stonewalling behaviour.
Working with a professional counsellor can help you both make a real difference to your self-esteem, confidence and communication skills.
Simple but effective ways of dealing with difficult feelings and situations can also help. Try starting a discussion with “I” statements rather than “you”. This makes it much less threatening as “you” can put people on the defensive.
What can you do if you realise you are stonewalling someone?
If you did not realise the impact of stonewalling on your partner but you do now and want to change, being willing to admit you stonewall without blaming your partner is a big first step forward.
Now you are aware of your behaviour, examine the motives behind it. Understanding why can help you to change your responses and behaviours.
When communicating with your partner moving forward, work on your listening skills and look at the discussion as a way to solve a problem rather than a contest or proving a point.
Think about things from your partner’s point of view. Even if you do not agree, listening will make your partner feel heard. And be empathic, put yourself in your partner’s shoes and see their point of view.
And share how you feel, are you defensive? Upset because? Being vulnerable and explaining your emotions and why you feel them helps communication between you both.
What if they are unwillingly to change their stonewalling behaviour?
If your partner is unwilling to change or you are suffering from emotional abuse it is important that you make our emotional and physical safety a priority. Any form of abuse is harmful and can escalate.
Please talk to someone and seek out professional help. Below is a list of support agencies.
Get in touch
If you would any advice on divorce or other family law issues please do contact our Client Care Team to speak to one of our specialist divorce lawyers.
- National Domestic Violence Helpline – 0808 2000 247
- The Men’s Advice Line, for male domestic abuse survivors – 0808 801 0327
- The Mix, free information and support for under 25s in the UK – 0808 808 4994
- National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline – 0800 999 5428
- Samaritans (24/7 service) – 116 123
The Four Horsemen: Stonewalling
The last, but certainly not least, of the Four Horsemen is stonewalling. Stonewalling is, well, what it sounds . In a discussion or argument, the listener withdraws from the interaction, shutting down and closing themselves off from the speaker because they are feeling overwhelmed or physiologically flooded. Metaphorically speaking, they build a wall between them and their partner.
Rather than confronting the issue, someone who is stonewalling will be totally unresponsive, making evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive behaviors.
It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable “out,” but when it does, it frequently becomes a habit.
If you’re more of a visual learner, here is a short clip with an explanation of stonewalling from John Gottman, as well as an example of what it looks :
When you are making every effort to address a problem, whether you are attempting to talk about something that is upsetting you, explain your feelings about an ongoing area of conflict, or try to reach a resolution — and your partner is pretending that you aren’t there — you are ly to reach a level of frustration or anger so high that you psychologically and emotionally “check out” as well.
Trying to communicate with someone who is acting in this way can be frustrating, and if the stonewalling continues, infuriating.
What’s the antidote to stonewalling?
When one person begins stonewalling, usually they are physiologically flooded, which has a number of indicators: increased heart rate, the release of stress hormones into the bloodstream, and even a fight-or-flight response. When that happens, it is impossible to continue discussing the issue at hand in a rational and respectful way; you’re simply too physiologically agitated to do so.
The first part of the antidote to stonewalling is to STOP.
However, this is a bit easier said than done. If you try to stop the argument and walk away singlehandedly, that could be interpreted by your partner as an even bigger display of stonewalling, and it could escalate the situation. What you’ll need to do is agree ahead of time on an appropriate and recognizable way to take a break.
Think of a neutral signal that you and your partner can use in a conversation to let each other know when one of you feels flooded with emotion. This can be a word, a phrase, a physical motion, or simply raising both hands into a stop position.
Come up with your own! And if you choose a silly or ridiculous signal, you may find that the very use of it helps to de-escalate the situation.
Really, it doesn’t matter what that request for a break looks or sounds , as long as it is respectful and that both you and your partner agree to recognize it when you need a break and, most importantly, agree to honor that request for a break.
So, if you are stonewalling and feeling flooded, say that you need a break using whatever signal, word, or phrase you and your partner have decided upon. Let each other know when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Then, you need to walk away and do something soothing on your own. This break should last at least twenty minutes since it will take that much time for your bodies to physiologically calm down.
The Practice of Physiological Self-Soothing
The second step to counteracting stonewalling is to practice physiological self-soothing.
It is crucial that during this time you avoid thoughts of righteous indignation (“I don’t have to take this anymore!”) and innocent victimhood (“Why is he always picking on me?”).
You really want not to think about the situation, or about your partner, and you want to do something that will help you self-soothe.
When you have moved apart to take your break, attempt the following:
- Imagine a place that makes you feel calm and safe. A sacred space where nothing can touch you. It may be a place you remember from childhood — a cozy corner you read in, your old bedroom, or a friend’s house. It may be a beautiful forest you explored on a trip. It may be a dreamscape. As you imagine yourself in this sanctuary, lose yourself in the peace of mind that it brings you. Meditating on a haven in your imagination can be a perfect, relaxing break from a difficult conversation.
- Practice focusing on your breath. Your breathing should be deep, regular, and even. Usually, when you get flooded, you either hold your breath a lot or breathe quick and shallow. So, inhale and exhale naturally. You may find yourself calmer and more centered if you stop for a moment, breathe, and allow the noise around you to temporarily fade away.
- Tense and relax parts of your body that feel tight or uncomfortable. Feel the warmth and heaviness flow your limbs. Take your time. This technique is similar to a focus on breathing, but you may find one or the other preferable. Work with either of these techniques to feel your stress flow away.
- Spend your time doing something soothing and distracting. For example: listening to music, reading a book, or taking a walk around the block.
What can we learn from stonewalling?
Masters of relationships maintain a 5:1 ratio of positivity to negativity during conflict discussions.
Positive interactions include displays of interest, affection, humor, empathy, and affirming body language ( eye contact and head nodding).
While it may be intuitive that negative exchanges outweighing the positive is a sign of relationship trouble, the 5:1 ratio also suggests that negativity is healthy as long as the ratio is maintained and the four horsemen are not present.
Cycles of non-constructive arguing and a lack of positive affect are major predictors of stonewalling, particularly predictive of stonewalling being used as an attempt to self-soothe or de-escalate, but backfiring and resulting in relationship deterioration. When these cycles grow more and more intense, physiological arousal begins to skyrocket, and the following dynamics emerge:
- For both partners, there is:
- A decrease in the ability to process information (reduced hearing, reduced peripheral vision, problems with shifting attention away from a defensive posture).
- An increase in defensiveness.
- A reduction in the ability for creative problem solving.
- A reduction in the ability to listen and empathize.
- Men are consistently more ly to stonewall than women. They will withdraw emotionally from conflict discussions while women remain emotionally engaged. 85% of stonewallers studied in the Love Lab were men.
- When women stonewall, it is quite predictive of divorce.
- Men are more ly to rehearse distress-maintaining thoughts than women, which may prolong their physiological arousal and hyper-vigilance, often causing their partners to flare up in response, until both are brought to a point of emotional detachment and avoidance.
- Male stonewalling is very upsetting for women, increasing their physiological arousal (things increased heart rates, etc.) and intensifying their pursuit of the issue.
Many of these findings come from a 1985 study by Drs. Gottman and Levenson, called “Physiological and Affective Predictors of Change in Relationship Satisfaction,” which you can access here.
In summary: stonewalling is bad, but here is a good rule to follow: When the two of you are in conflict, and someone checks out, check in with them and take a break. In other words, when stonewalling starts, STOP. Attempts to continue will not make productive headway for either of you, but rather will intensify your shared conflict and emotional distress.
We think taking a break of this sort is so important that we schedule this exercise into the conflict-resolution section of every workshop that we run. Soothing themselves makes couples better able to work on their conflicts as a team rather than as adversaries.
Your and your partner’s mental health play a large role in determining the health of your relationship.
Don’t forget to take care of yourselves! Self-soothing is a very useful and effective act of self-care, and if you each devote enough time and energy to self-care (getting enough sleep, nutrition, exercise, time for pursuit of your passions), you may see the frequency and intensity of fights between the two of you drop dramatically.
Remember: the ability to self-soothe is one of the most important skills you can learn. Practicing it can help you not only in romantic relationships, but in all other areas of your life.
Learn more about what to do when the Four Horsemen enter your relationship in the new Gottman Relationship Coach.
If you want to build a deeply meaningful relationship full of trust and intimacy, then subscribe below to receive our blog posts directly to your inbox:
Stonewalling — GoodTherapy.org Therapy Blog
Stonewalling is a persistent refusal to communicate or to express emotions. It is common during conflicts, when people may stonewall in an attempt to avoid uncomfortable conversations or fear that engaging in an emotional discussion will result in a fight.
What Is Stonewalling?
Conflict, particularly in close relationships, can be overwhelming and may feel unbearable. When faced with a potential conflict, one partner may stonewall, or completely refuse to communicate.
Stonewalling can include avoiding a discussion of one’s feelings, refusing to give nonverbal communication cues, walking out in the middle of a discussion without warning or explanation, or simply refusing to discuss the issue at hand.
This tactic can be distressing when the other partner does wish to discuss an area of conflict, and the lack of communication might often cause extreme anger and frustration.
Stonewalling occurs on a continuum, and it can range from refusing to discuss a problem for a brief period of time to completely withdrawing for months.
The stonewalling practice of leaving during a discussion differs from leaving a discussion for a brief period of time to calm down before returning: Such a cool-down period might be beneficial to a discussion, but in stonewalling, the point is not to continue talking later but to avoid doing so entirely.
Is Stonewalling Abuse?
Stonewalling is often born of frustration and fear, and when it is used alone, it may occur as the result of a desire to decrease tension in an emotionally overwhelming situation, or in an attempt to self-soothe.
John Gottman, a marriage therapist who did extensive research on stonewalling in partnerships, found men often react to disagreements with more signs of physiological stress than women do, and thus, they have been shown to be more ly to stonewall than women, often in an attempt to remain neutral or avoid conflict.
Find a Therapist
Stonewalling can also be a manipulative or controlling strategy.
When stonewalling is deliberate, the partner who refuses to communicate is often drawing the situation out and preventing the other partner from seeking out other options to address the conflict or even end the relationship.
People who are stonewalled by others may feel hopeless and experience a loss of control or self-esteem. Stonewalling is often a way to gain power over a partner while seemingly doing nothing, though it is often used in combination with threats and isolation.
The Effects of Stonewalling
Stonewalling can have disastrous effects on a relationship. Gottman, who reports that he can predict divorce with near-100% accuracy, calls stonewalling one of the “four horsemen” that indicate the lihood of divorce. Because stonewalling inhibits a couple’s ability to resolve conflicts, it can cause petty disagreements to escalate control.
When people experience stonewalling, they may react with desperation and say or do anything to get the stonewalling to stop. The extreme frustration that may be felt by the partner being stonewalled might also lead to a more serious conflict than the original issue may have warranted.
Thus, it is not just stonewalling itself that causes problems, but also the reactions it can lead to.
Therapy for Stonewalling
In a partnership where one partner often resorts to stonewalling tactics, both partners may benefit from a revision of communication tactics.
It may be helpful for both partners to understand why the stonewalling takes place, and a couples therapist may be able to assist with the exploration of this issue.
Because a relationship where communication and cooperation are lacking is unly to be successful in the long term, couples therapy may help with the strengthening of communication in a partnership affected by stonewalling.
Stonewalling may be a defensive tactic learned in childhood, or it may be a result of difficulty expressing oneself emotionally. In either case, a therapist may be able to help with both examination and resolution of the issue, and in therapy, new tactics to express emotions and cope with conflict can be explored.
- Lisitsa, E. (2013, May 20). The four horsemen: Stonewalling. Retrieved from http://www.gottmanblog.com/four-horsemen/2014/10/30/the-four-horsemen-stonewalling?rq=stonewalling
- Lisitsa, E. (2014, March 12). Self care: Stonewalling part ii (the research). Retrieved from http://www.gottmanblog.com/archives/2014/10/31/self-care-stonewalling-part-ii-the-research?rq=stonewalling
- Research FAQs. (n.d.). Frequently asked questions about Dr. Gottman’s research. Retrieved from http://www.gottman.com/49853/Research-FAQs.html
- Samsel, M. (n.d.). Stonewalling in abuse. Retrieved from http://www.abuseandrelationships.org/Content/Behaviors/stonewalling.html
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