Stonewalling - Ways to Deal with It
Updated December 10, 2018
Reviewer Sonya Bruner
The definition of stonewalling is behavior intended "to delay or obstruct (a request, process, or person) by refusing to answer questions or by being evasive." Stonewalling is so harmful to relationships that well-known relationship therapist and researcher, John Gottman, MD, calls it one of the 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.' The other three are criticism, defensiveness, and contempt. Stonewalling can be very painful for the person who is on the receiving end of it.
Typical Stonewalling Behavior
A person can stonewall in the following ways:
- Keeps quiet when addressed, remains unresponsive despite inquiries, or replies with terse, single-word responses
- 'Tunes out' - pretends not to hear or listen
- Turns or walks away from the speaker when addressed; pretends the other person is invisible or not present
- Acts busy, always on the move, or too occupied to engage in conversation
- When criticized, even in peaceful conversation, changes the topic midway to something unrelated, or
- Changes the topic to the speaker's perceived shortcomings or faults
Why Do Some People Need to Stonewall in Relationships?
When a person stonewalls, the assumption is often made that he or she is angry, rude, irresponsible, childish, or simply disinterested in relating to others or the world. This might be true for some, but this type of defensive behavior is often nuanced and multi-faceted. Research has shown that men are more likely to stonewall in relationships than women, simply because emotional detachment is more characteristic of the male gender. The reasons for stonewalling may be various and often not nefarious at all:
Defense Against Overwhelm
Stonewalling can be a coping mechanism for men, and a way of disappearing into his metaphorical 'man cave.' This space may offer him much-needed inner (and sometimes outer) solitude to deal with crises that overwhelm emotionally. Unable to express or differently process how he feels, he prefers to simply 'vanish' emotionally when uncomfortable. While solitude can be healthy, prolonged stonewalling is not a good relationship strategy. Women are not exempt from stonewalling behavior due to being overwhelmed, but this particular behavior tends to be more common in men.
When a person defers too easily to stonewalling as a coping mechanism, it amounts to denying emotions the gentle space they deserve. They just need to be felt. Suppressed feelings tend to behave like vampires - unless one can confront the beast and drive a stake through its heart, it is likely to rise again usually more intense than before. The link between depression, physical illness, and emotional dysregulation is a solid one.
This is the most toxic motive behind stonewalling in relationships. In its more innocent form, it is an avoidance technique implemented in order not to deal with problems or situations, but the aggressive stonewaller favors her or his preferences in the relationship and uses stonewalling behavior to have his or her way. These traits, in themselves, are detrimental, selfish and immature - not good for relating. This type of stonewalling is often abusive, or borders on such.
If one of the spouses persists with stonewalling, despite all efforts of their partner to draw him or her out, it could be that the stonewaller has something to hide. Perhaps an extra-marital affair? A crime? The withdrawal from the relationship may indicate he or she wants out.
In extreme cases, the reason behind manipulating others in this manner may be a disorder such as borderline personality disorder, narcissism, or sociopathy.
Other factors suggest manipulative stonewalling, such as when a person denies, despite evidence to the contrary, that their stonewalling is:
- Belittling to others
- Invalidating of others' observations and feelings
- Rationalizing abuse
Relationships are a two-way street. If one person persistently withdraws from the relationship, it cannot survive.
How Does Stonewalling Affect Relationships?
When a person stonewalls, he or she displays the need to disengage. This psychological removal from relationships and situations can result in dire fallout.
In Marriages and Families
If left unaddressed, stonewalling is likely to cause severe marital distress, conflict, and disruption. Studies have convincingly linked these upheavals in marriages to depression, poor social competence, withdrawal, health problems and poor academic performance in children. In women, these types of upheaval are proven to cause illness, and in men, they tend to cause loneliness. The destabilizing effect of divorce, a likely outcome of severe and persistent stonewalling, needs no elaboration.
In the Workplace
Stonewalling can have the same catastrophic effect on relationships at work, which will eventually affect work performance. Strained relationships can result in loss of personnel, with financial losses for the employer. If the stonewaller is in a managerial position, this behavior is likely to poison everyone who works under him or her. It is a truly disempowering way to conduct relationships.
How to Deal with a Partner's Stonewalling
- First, give your partner the benefit of the doubt - you are probably not the problem. He or she may feel overwhelmed by a crisis that is difficult to discuss. Stop trying to engage him or her, especially if this is uncharacteristic behavior. Your compassionate reassurance of availability whenever he or she feels ready to discuss what is happening may just open a door to greater communication, and may even strengthen your relationship.
- Check your behavior. Is it encouraging when your partner engages with you? Sometimes stonewalling can be a defense against criticism or a response to perceived aggression and hostility.
- If you have made every effort to address a problem by attempting to talk about it, but your partner still stonewalls you - stop. Things are likely to escalate, and you need to take care of yourself. You are likely to feel infuriated by your partner's behavior and consumed by difficult emotions. To deal with these, Gottman suggests the practice of physiological self-soothing. This involves taking time out to calm your agitated feelings, and to give your partner the space to adjust their behavior. Gottman also suggests, however, to avoid stewing in thoughts of righteous indignation ("I don't have to take this!") or playing the victim ("Why is he/she always doing this to me?"). You're making things worse for yourself. Look for distractions and keep yourself busy with a hobby, soothing music, watching a good movie, taking a walk, etc.
- Don't cling to a distress-inducing mindset when your partner makes an effort to adjust their behavior. All relationships are visited by the Four Apocalyptic Horsemen (criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling) from time to time. Solid relationships are built when partners find ways to deal with each Horseman constructively.
- If his or her stonewalling behavior persists over a long period, and you increasingly feel abused and neglected, it is perhaps time to see a counselor or therapist. Ideally, your partner should join you.
What to Do When You're the Stonewaller
Your stonewalling behavior is likely to have the following effect on others:
- Leave them with feelings of abandonment. This can be a devastating emotion to deal with, especially for a spouse, and the effect will show in the relationship. Marriage is a transactional agreement to partner with someone, and your disengagement demonstrates that you're no longer available for, or interested in the partnership, no matter what your true motivations are.
- If you're stonewalling in the workplace, your colleagues will probably feel that you're punishing them for undisclosed errors or misconduct. This could affect their confidence levels, and eventually their work performance. Unless you have sadistic tendencies, don't expect positive outcomes from shutting co-workers off.
- Feelings of helplessness. A person who persistently stonewalls removes the oxygen from relationships. This is likely to make others feel very helpless, even incompetent.
- Defensive behavior. Whoever is being stonewalled is likely to progress to secondary feelings of fear, anger, and aggression to engage you again. His or her internal response will probably be: "She doesn't care" or "He doesn't love me anymore." This could give rise to increasingly desperate attempts to break through to you with escalating aggression.
- If your partner 'miraculously leaves you alone,' it could be a sign that he or she has had enough and is planning an exit. Red flags should jump up for you.
If you're able to recognize this behavior in yourself, then you deserve congratulations. It speaks of emotional maturity. Truly accepting that one needs to change for the sake of better relationships is one of the hardest psychological milestones to achieve.
Furthermore, fully understanding how your stonewalling is affecting others could go a long way towards building your empathy muscles. It can also help to prompt change and the discovery of different relationship strategies.
Engage to the best of your ability, and express your desire to engage. If this is very difficult for you and your partner, consider couples' therapy, personal counseling, or a workshop on inner healing. Learning how to face and deal with difficult emotions will be a hard but rewarding journey to embark on. You will not be sorry.
Therapy for Stonewalling Behavior
Not all negativity in relationships is equally corrosive. Defensiveness, stonewalling, contempt, blame, and criticism are the worst behaviors, and need the most urgent attention if a relationship is to be saved. However, when these manifest, it need not be a sign of a pending relationship apocalypse. All types of behavior are modifiable with effort and self-regulation.
Consider finding a professional therapist or counselor on BetterHelp to better deal with stonewalling - either in yourself or your relationship. They are trained to assist with this, or any other psychological or emotional problem you may be facing.