Effective communication is a key facet of healthy relationships, allowing partners to express themselves, work through challenges, and connect. So, acting in ways that restrict such a dialogue can be harmful to a successful partnership. Stonewalling, which refers to the refusal of one partner to communicate with the other, is one such behavioral pattern. Below, we’re providing an overview of stonewalling and its signs, outlining its potential effects on your relationship, and offering solutions that can help improve communication between you and your partner.
What Is Stonewalling?
In the context of relationships, stonewalling refers to the purposeful refusal of one partner to communicate with the other. Though their significant other may want to have a discussion or work through a challenge, the person doing the stonewalling may ignore them, reply with short or incomplete answers, or even remove themselves from the situation.
Stonewalling can occur in a variety of contexts. Consider, for example, a situation in which one partner in a relationship wants to discuss the topic of finances with the other. If they’ve tried to discuss money on several occasions, but their partner changes the subject or avoids talking about it each time, this behavior could be considered stonewalling.
As a tactic, stonewalling can negatively affect each partner’s emotional well-being and even impact the physical health of the partner engaging in the behavior. Stonewalling can keep partners from expressing their feelings, solving problems together, or connecting on a deeper level. It can create a power imbalance in a relationship and cause one partner to feel disregarded.
If you experience stonewalling in your relationship, you likely understand how it can damage you and your partner’s ability to successfully communicate and work through conflict. Being on the receiving end of someone who is stonewalling can feel like there is a barrier between you and your partner. Alternatively, you may tend to put up a wall during conflict, whether because you feel overwhelmed or uncomfortable, or you’re unsure how to connect with your partner in a healthy way. Despite the serious challenges stonewalling can present in a relationship, there are several ways of addressing this behavior and developing effective communication strategies.
Signs Of Stonewalling In A Relationship
While stonewalling can be obvious at times, it may also manifest in subtle, less-discernible behaviors. The following are signs of stonewalling in a relationship.
- Changing the subject when a specific topic arises
- Ignoring requests to engage in conversation
- Pretending to be busy instead of talking
- Providing short or incomplete answers to questions
- Displaying closed body language (e.g., lack of eye contact, crossed arms, body pointed away)
- Physically leaving to avoid communicating
A large body of research shows that communication is a key component of relationships, and that negative methods of interacting can lead to relationship dissatisfaction. Stonewalling is a common communication breakdown that can have significant impacts on couples who experience it. Many experts believe that this type of behavior is a sign of severe relationship distress.
Stonewalling is emblematic of a common relationship dynamic known as a demand-withdraw pattern, in which one partner seeks to effect change or address certain situations (demand) and the other pulls away or refuses to engage (withdraw). This can create an imbalance, providing the partner who is withdrawing with more power. The demand-withdraw dynamic is associated with higher levels of marital dissatisfaction, and negative communication has been linked with a greater risk of divorce.
Partners who are unable to communicate effectively due to stonewalling may experience increases in tension and unresolved conflict. The ability to solve problems can be crucial to the success of a relationship, helping partners make decisions together, provide each other with support, and work through challenges. When one partner is unwilling to engage in this type of productive communication, disagreements that might otherwise be easily addressed can be exacerbated, leading to further conflict.
Emotional intimacy is another important aspect of relationships that can be affected by stonewalling. Research suggests that emotional intimacy is associated with both relationship satisfaction and communication. Partners who are able to discuss their feelings with one another and provide each other with respect and understanding may experience a deeper bond. Behavior that prevents this form of emotional connection, however, can lead to distance and feelings of neglect.
When someone is on the receiving end of stonewalling regularly, they may doubt their value within the relationship or feel neglected. Stonewalling can also lead to feelings of frustration, anger, or stress. Additionally, research suggests that a demand-withdraw pattern is associated with depression. Stonewalling may cause the individual on the demand side to feel isolated and lonely due to their partner’s unwillingness to engage with them. It has even been associated with negative physical effects, like cardiovascular and musculoskeletal challenges.
How To Address Stonewalling
If you’ve noticed the signs of stonewalling in your relationship, you may be wondering what you can do to limit its effects. The following are strategies you can use to address stonewalling and interact with your partner in a healthy, mutually beneficial way.
When Your Partner Is Stonewalling
It can be upsetting when your partner refuses to engage with you. Feeling as though you’re the only person trying to communicate in your relationship may lead to a range of emotions. While you may want to bridge the communication gap quickly, patience can be crucial. Responding to stonewalling with frustration or anger may cause your partner to pull away further.
To start, consider directly acknowledging your partner’s behavior. They may not realize they’re stonewalling, or they might be hoping you aren’t aware of this tactic. During a moment when you’re not arguing or experiencing tension, talk to your partner about their lack of communication and how it makes you feel. Addressing the behavior can be the first step toward moving past it.
It can also be important to remember that your partner’s actions aren’t a reflection on you. Stonewalling can make you feel as though you’re not communicating effectively, even though you’re the one putting in the effort. But their decision to not interact with you is their choice, and you are not responsible for their behavior.
Though your partner’s actions may be upsetting, empathizing with them can help you nurture a more communicative relationship. Try to understand why they’re pulling away instead of engaging with you. It could be because the topic is sensitive for them. For example, if your partner was discouraged from expressing their emotions as a child, they may have a hard time discussing their feelings now. Or they may live with a mental health condition that makes communication more difficult, such as social anxiety disorder.
As you work to foster productive conversations, try to be mindful of the way in which you bring up certain topics. Broaching a potentially complicated subject without warning may catch your partner off guard. Instead, consider asking your partner whether they’d like to discuss the topic at a specific time. This may help them feel more prepared to engage with you in a constructive manner.
When You Are Stonewalling
If you recognize the signs of stonewalling in your own behavior, it can help to understand why you respond in this way. Often, stonewalling is the result of wanting to avoid a negative evaluation of one’s role as a partner. Are you concerned that your partner is going to judge or criticize you? If you feel defensive when your partner attempts to communicate with you, try telling them you feel that way. This can help you address your feelings as opposed to channeling them into potentially unproductive behaviors.
It can also help to remind yourself that listening to your partner will make them feel heard and understood, even if you do not agree with them. Validating their feelings can go a long way toward having a meaningful conversation, even about difficult topics.
Additionally, you may struggle with the methods of communication your partner employs. If you often feel caught off guard when your partner broaches certain topics, it may be harder for you to engage with them. Consider asking them if you can reassess how you communicate. For example, you may want to schedule conversations ahead of time or avoid discussing certain topics when you’ve been arguing.
Effective Communication With Online Therapy
Research shows that online therapy can be an effective way of enhancing relationship functioning for partnerships in which stonewalling or similar behaviors are present. For example, in a study of 72 couples, researchers found that online therapy led to improvements in constructive communication and reductions in demand-withdraw behaviors. The study also mentions the potential of online therapy to decrease stress and anxiety within relationships.
If stonewalling or similar breakdowns in communication are occurring in your relationship, consider connecting with a licensed therapist online. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can discuss relationship challenges remotely, through video calls, voice calls, or in-app messaging. You can also message your therapist between sessions, which can be helpful if you have questions about a certain communication strategy or forget to mention something during therapy.
What is stonewalling in a relationship?
In romantic relationships, stonewalling occurs when one partner refuses to communicate with the other. A person might stonewall their partner when a specific topic comes up, but it can also be a more general behavior during arguments or everyday interactions. Some examples of stonewalling behavior include:
- Giving someone the silent treatment
- Refusing to answer questions
- Changing the subject whenever a certain topic comes up
- Leaving the conversation completely
These kinds of behaviors can make it hard for couples to work through disagreements and discuss important topics.
What is stonewalling a symptom of?
Stonewalling can be a form of manipulation, but it can also be a symptom of another issue, such as:
- Problems in the relationship
- Trouble with communication
- Family history
- Anxiety or stress
- Certain personality disorders, like borderline personality disorder
Intentional stonewalling is often discussed, but unintentional stonewalling can also happen as a result of past trauma, an underlying mental health condition, or stress.
Is stonewalling narcissistic?
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a personality disorder that can cause feelings of self-importance and trouble empathizing with others. People with NPD may sometimes use stonewalling as a tactic for control and manipulation.
That said, stonewalling is not always a symptom of NPD. Other personality disorders, traits, and past experiences can also lead to stonewalling.
Is stonewalling gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a type of manipulation where one person tries to make the other person question their sanity or memory. It is often used as a way to gain control in the relationship by making someone doubt their own interpretation of reality.
On the other hand, stonewalling is the act of shutting someone out of discussions by ignoring them, giving incomplete answers, or abandoning the conversation completely. This may be because they feel overwhelmed, don't want to have a hard conversation, or are trying to manipulate the other person.
Stonewalling and gaslighting may both be used to manipulate or gain control over someone. A person might engage in one or both, but they are separate behaviors.
What type of person uses stonewalling?
There may not be one single type of person who uses stonewalling. That said, stonewalling can sometimes be a symptom of personality disorders like narcissistic personality disorder. It may also be more common among people with an avoidant-dismissive attachment style, which can make it harder for them to open up emotionally. Social anxiety, trouble managing stress, and even past trauma may also make someone more likely to stonewall.
Why is stonewalling so toxic?
Stonewalling can lead to a drop in relationship satisfaction by making it hard for couples to resolve disagreements and work through problems. The person being stonewalled may feel frustration or emotional distress, leading to a spike in stress hormones that can have negative effects on physical health. If the behavior continues over time, resentment may build, possibly leading to bigger arguments that can further damage the relationship.
These are just a few examples of why stonewalling can be toxic.
Is stonewalling a trauma response?
Although stonewalling is not always a response to trauma, it can be. If a person has experienced trauma, topics that remind them of the experience may be distressing. When these topics come up in discussions, even important ones, they may shut down or try to abandon the conversation as a form of self-soothing.
How do you respond to stonewalling?
If you recognize stonewalling in your relationship, the following techniques may be helpful for addressing it:
- Reflecting on the cause: If you are stonewalling or being stonewalled, it can help to think about what might be causing the behavior. Identifying the trigger may allow you to brainstorm easier ways to approach the topic in future conversations.
- Being empathetic: Whether you are practicing stonewalling or being stonewalled, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes can give you perspective on their feelings. Consider how they might be perceiving the situation and how it might be making them feel.
- Getting some space: When stonewalling happens, sometimes it can help to take a step back from the conversation to self-soothe and let your emotions settle. Practicing self-care and getting distance may help you come back to the interaction with more clarity.
Couples counseling can also be a useful resource for managing stonewalling in relationships and learning healthy behaviors. If stonewalling is causing you concern, couples therapy may be an option worth considering.
Is stonewalling a mental health symptom?
Stonewalling can sometimes be a symptom of an underlying mental health condition, like social anxiety disorder or PTSD. It is also sometimes used as a manipulation tactic.
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