Is Stonewalling A Form Of Abuse? Learn More About The Effects Of Stonewalling

By: Sarah Cocchimiglio

Updated October 21, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Avia James

Relationships can be tricky. They require a lot of patience and good communication. Both of you need to want to learn and grow together. But what do you do when your partner refuses to talk or cooperate with you? Can stonewalling be considered abuse?

To answer this question, we'll look at the basic definition of stonewalling and how this harmful habit can affect both people in a relationship. Later, we'll cover some tips to change your habits if you're the one who is stonewalling your partner and what you can do if you're being stonewalled.

stonewalled, stonewalling

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What is Stonewalling?

Someone who stonewalls avoids engaging in discussion, problem-solving, or cooperating. They may sit sullenly and silently while you become more and more frantic because you don't feel heard. Or they might dismiss everything you say as if you're boring, unreasonable, or "making a big deal out of nothing." While you try to address concerns, a person who is stonewalling acts like you're not important or have nothing valuable to say to them.

How to Recognize Stonewalling

Men are more commonly the ones who stonewall in a relationship. Women tend to have strong reactions to being stonewalled, while men usually don't. Still, it can happen between any two people. How do you know if it's happening in your relationship? Look at your partner's behavior, but also look at your own. Taking responsibility for your behavior is an essential part of any healthy, positive relationship, as is expecting your partner to take responsibility for theirs.

When Someone is Stonewalling You

Stonewalling can be obvious at times. Sometimes, though, you might not realize what your partner is doing when they stonewall you. Here are some of the symptoms of stonewalling in a relationship:

  • You start serious conversations by criticizing your partner.
  • Your partner ignores you when you speak.
  • Your partner is suddenly busy with something else whenever you want to talk seriously.
  • Your partner refuses to make eye contact with you.
  • Your partner rolls their eyes.
  • Your partner speaks very little, and when they do speak, it's usually to defend themselves and blame you.
  • You experience physiological symptoms like increased heart rate when your partner won't listen to you.
  • Your partner dismisses your concerns without listening to them.
  • Your partner makes fun of your concerns.
  • Your partner refuses to take responsibility for their stonewalling.

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When You're Stonewalling Someone

If you've been stonewalling someone else, you may not realize what you're doing to them. It's possible that you learned this behavior from your parents, so you think it's a normal part of a relationship. You can change your behavior and have a happier relationship, but first, you need to acknowledge your behavior. Here are some signs to watch for:

  • When your partner asks a question or expresses a concern, you immediately feel defensive.
  • You avoid arguing at all costs.
  • Being "right" is so important to you that you're willing to jeopardize the relationship.
  • You're obsessed with staying out of trouble.
  • You're more concerned with avoiding conflict than you are with solving problems.

Effects of Stonewalling in Relationships

Even if you know how to define stonewalling, it may not seem like a big deal to you, but stonewalling is one of the most destructive habits in a relationship. In fact, when partners rely on stonewalling to deal with relationship problems, it usually signals an impending breakup.

Effects on the Person Who is Being Stonewalled

A person who is being stonewalled tends to feel hurt and angry. They become frustrated with trying to be heard and may begin to stonewall themselves. However, since men do not typically respond to stonewalling the same way women do, women who stonewall in return continue to feel shut out.

When someone is stonewalled regularly, they may begin to doubt their value as a person or feel like they're going crazy. This is a natural response because stonewalling is a form of gaslighting. They not only feel dismissed, but they may begin to feel worthless, powerless, and hopeless. The experience can leave them feeling confused and weak, making it difficult for them to leave the relationship. Alternatively, it might make them feel so angry that they leave as quickly as they can. After leaving, they may need help from a mental health professional to heal from the experience.

"Consider going to a couples' counselor to discuss stonewalling and other unhealthy relationship patterns. If your partner is still stonewalling you, think about getting into counseling on your own."

Effects on the Relationship

A relationship marked by frequent stonewalling suffers tremendously until both partners learn how to communicate more productively. The partners become more distant from each other. They may stop being intimate in any way, including sexually. They may lead separate lives, living together without sharing activities or interests.

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Effects on the Person Who is Stonewalling

The person who is stonewalling suffers, too. While you might feel like you're winning every potential conflict, you deny yourself the warm, emotionally-intimate relationship that could make you truly happy. You may become callous to others, cut off from your feelings, and withdrawn from social interactions. If you continue stonewalling in your relationship, you'll make both yourself and your partner miserable for no good reason.

Is Stonewalling Abuse?

By now, you understand enough about stonewalling to see that it's harmful to individuals as well as relationships. Harmful, yes, but is it abusive? Psychologists recognize stonewalling as a behavior that belittles, demeans, disrespects and devalues the person who's being stonewalled. To see if this makes stonewalling abuse, consider what defines emotional abuse.

Emotional Abuse vs. Stonewalling

Emotional abuse has several hallmarks. It is systematic, mean-spirited, and manipulative. Emotional abuse is expressly non-physical. Instead, it is violence that comes in the form of verbal and emotional harm. When you compare stonewalling with emotional abuse, you might notice that some people seem to stonewall without malicious intent.

While not all stonewallers intend to harm their partners, a small part of them do want to hurt the person they're stonewalling. That's why they choose the most hurtful things to say and not say or do and not do. They stonewall because they refuse to give in. Even though they may not be consciously aware that they're trying to cause emotional pain, a part of them knows it.

Stonewalling may be common, but it isn't healthy. People who have happy marriages don't or rarely use stonewalling. Labeling it as "normal" may make you feel justified in behaving that way, but it will also keep you stuck in unhealthy patterns. The real question you need to consider is whether or not it will benefit your relationship.

Do I Have to Verbalize Everything?

People who have a habit of stonewalling often view it as a way to set themselves apart from their partners. In any healthy relationship, it's important to have your own identity and keep some things to yourself, but you don't stand out as an individual when you avoid answering your partner's direct questions. Instead, you present yourself as a hard, unyielding blank wall. You don't have to tell your partner everything, but when you choose not to share, you need to go out of your way to help your partner understand and accept it. You do this through communication, not stonewalling. Online therapy has been proven to strengthen relationships where stonewalling has taken place. 

You may read the full study here: Marriage: A Randomized Controlled Trial of the Web-Based OurRelationship Program: Effects on Relationship and Individual Functioning.

What You Can Do About Stonewalling

If you want to have a healthy, happy relationship, you have all the motivation you need to stop stonewalling. You can't control the other person's behavior, of course, but there are some ways you can begin to change the way you communicate.

What to Do if Someone is Stonewalling You

If you recognize that your partner is stonewalling you, your next step might be to consider if and how you're contributing to the problem. Do some problem-solving on your own to decide what changes you can make to help the situation. If you have low self-esteem because your partner habitually stonewalls you, it can be difficult to dissect the problem logically. If that's the case, a counselor can help you take a closer look at the way you can communicate and teach you ways to communicate more effectively. The following tips may help you get started:

  • Work with a counselor to improve your self-esteem and communication skills.
  • Make it a point to soften the way you present a concern.
  • Don't start a serious conversation with a complaint or criticism of your partner.
  • When you begin to feel frustrated and angry, practice calming techniques like deep breathing.
  • Give yourself credit for trying to solve problems, but remember that solving them is your goal.
  • Expect your partner to take responsibility for his stonewalling behavior.

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What to Do If You Realize You're Stonewalling Someone

Assuming you stonewalled someone without fully realizing how your behavior impacts the other person, what can you do now? How can you make changes? Here are a few tips to help you improve your communication:

  • Work on listening rather than proving a point.
  • Try to see the discussion as a problem-solving session rather than a contest.
  • If you feel defensive, tell your partner you feel that way.
  • Remind yourself that listening to your partner will make them feel heard, even if you don't agree with them.
  • Develop a higher sense of empathy by trying to see what life is like for your partner.
  • Examine the motives behind your behavior.
  • Be willing to admit you're stonewalling without blaming your partner.
  • Commit to finding a solution to your relationship troubles as a team.

Who Can Help You Overcome Stonewalling Abuse?

You can read books, listen to podcasts, or do research on the web to find out more about stonewalling. However, it's very hard to change communication patterns without professional help. Consider going to a couples' counselor to discuss stonewalling and other unhealthy relationship patterns. If your partner is still stonewalling you, think about getting into counseling on your own.

How BetterHelp Can Support You

You can find licensed, experienced therapists online at BetterHelp. They're licensed counselors who understand how stonewalling can damage individuals, relationships, and families. Starting is easy, and therapy is convenient and affordable. The sooner you and your partner address this difficult problem, the sooner you can leave stonewalling problems in the past and live the life that makes you happy. Check out what people are saying about their experiences with BetterHelp's licensed therapists below.

Counselor Reviews

"Andrea has been nothing short of wonderful since I started counseling with her. She always makes me feel heard and validated, while at the same time challenging me to question the way I think about and react to different situations. She is thoughtful, caring, and nonjudgmental. I have seen a huge difference in myself, my relationships, and my happiness since I started working with her."

"He is a very genuine easy to talk person. He is very helpful to me and my partner. He has had a very positive impact on our relationship."

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Why do people stonewall?

People use stonewalling for many reasons. Some consciously use stonewalling techniques to gaslight or confuse their partners. Others may not be aware they are stonewalling and have developed this negative pattern of behavioral responses to conflict.

What does it mean to stonewall someone in a relationship?

In a nutshell, "stonewalling" is one partner becoming unreachable to the other. The partner who is unreachable often seems cold and impenetrable -- like a stonewall. Stonewalling can look like the silent treatment, indirect eye contact, conflict avoidance, and refusal to acknowledge glaring issues in a relationship.

What is narcissistic stonewalling?

Narcissistic stonewalling is an abusive form of stonewalling. This form of stonewalling is intentional and used to gain control over the other partner in the relationship by causing emotional harm. For example, a person who knows that their spouse likes to talk things through will purposefully use the silent treatment and refuse to address any issue with their partner. Narcissistic stonewalling involves blaming the other partner for whatever is wrong in the relationship -- yet refusing to fix it.

What is stonewalling and gaslighting?

Stonewalling and gaslighting are two forms of negative behavior patterns that happen in unhealthy relationships. Gaslighting is an intentional form of emotional abuse used to gain power over the other person in the relationship, by making the other person feel like they are “going crazy.” Examples of gaslighting are lying, crazy-making behavior, and intentional emotional wounding. For instance, if the lightbulbs are flickering and your partner asks you about it, but you deny the flickering and say, “It’s all in your head!” this would be gaslighting or “crazy-making behavior.”

Stonewalling is shutting down and becoming like a “stone wall" when it comes to having important discussions or conversations about needed changes in a relationship. People who stonewall sometimes don't have the intention of causing emotional harm to the other party.

Where does stonewalling come from?

Stonewalling is a defense-mechanism that is often activated when people feel threatened or unsure of how to respond to conflict in a relationship. People who use stonewalling may do so because they fear a negative outcome or as a learned behavior pattern that they are repeating from childhood.

Is the silent treatment manipulation?

The silent treatment can be used as a weapon or as a tool in relationships. The intent behind the use of the silent treatment is what counts. For example, if you and your partner are in an argument and your partner asks you for a few minutes to cool down and collect their thoughts -- this is not a negative use of the silent treatment. This is your partner requesting space to process their emotions before moving forward with the conversation. Taking a time out to cool off is a positive use of the silent treatment. A negative example of the silent treatment (a form manipulation) is someone deliberately ignoring you or storming out during an argument or conversation, and refusing to speak with you afterward. This can be toxic for relationships.

What silent treatment does to a relationship?

As we can see from the example above, the silent treatment can be used in both a negative and positive manner in relationships. People who use silence effectively to gather their thoughts and regroup are likely to have more productive and fulfilling conversations and a high level of conflict resolution. People who use the silent treatment as a form of manipulation in relationships will likely find a lower level of satisfaction in relationships, higher separation rates, and higher divorce rates.

Why do guys shut down emotionally?

It's not uncommon for men to become silent while they're pondering a serious concern. Unless your guy is flat out ignoring you -- most likely he is working on collecting his thoughts in order to resolve whatever issues you're discussing. If you want to be sure, speak openly and honestly with your partner and ask them if they need a few minutes to collect their thoughts. Once the agreed amount of time has passed, revisit the issue. If your partner is able to do this (and vice versa), you're likely on the right track. If not, seek the help of a licensed professional for support and advice.

What is stonewalling in a relationship?

Stonewalling occurs when someone refuses to cooperate or talk to you. When this happens in a relationship, it can be a good predictor of divorce, or one of many physiological and affective predictors of a problem within a relationship. In fact, John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” describes stonewalling as the fourth “horseman,” or metaphor for a severe problem. When people in close relationships are totally unresponsive to each other, this can lead to serious problems. Signs of stonewalling are using only nonverbal communication and being totally unresponsive when you try to speak with them. It can be hard to keep maintaining thoughts that are positive about your partner when they act in this manner.

Why do people stonewall?

At times, people stonewall when they don’t want to argue with each other or are trying to keep from having difficult conversations. Stonewalling may also occur when someone wants to get their way in a situation, and refuses to communicate with you until you agree with them. This is sometimes used in politics.  

Is stonewalling passive aggressive?

Stonewalling is considered passive aggression because it is designed to anger the person most affected by it. When you rely on communication in close relationships and you aren’t getting it because of stonewalling, you may become upset and behave differently that you often do. This is horseman stonewalling.

How do you deal with stonewalling?

To deal with stonewalling, you will need to stop it immediately. If you aren’t the one that was utilizing this cold shoulder technique, you should see if you can get to the bottom of the issue at hand. Do what you can to discuss relationship satisfaction with your partner and talk through whatever is going on.

Is stonewalling a form of gaslighting?

Stonewalling is a type of gaslighting. Gaslighting happens when a person attempts to make another person think they don’t have a good grasp on reality, or questions their emotional intelligence. Men often stonewall, but women stonewall as well, so there is no way to tell who will be affected by it the most in a relationship.

Is stonewalling narcissistic?

Stonewalling is considered to be a narcissistic tactic. In some cases, stonewalling is a form of abuse. When a person stone walls another person, it is because they want to get their own way, or they want to take control of a situation. It doesn’t matter what the conflict was about, since many times, it can show that there is a change in relationship satisfaction. This is why it is important to keep communication open with your partner, in order to deal with issues as they come up.


What it feels like to be stonewalled?

When someone is being stonewalled, it may evoke their fight or flight response, where they want to flee a situation. They may also experience an increased heart rate and attempt to self-soothe, so they can feel better. People that are affected by stonewalling generally want to resolve the situation and get back to happier times and healthier communication.

What is narcissistic stonewalling?

Narcissistic stonewalling is when one person in a relationship decides to stop communicating and cooperating entirely with the other person, for a number of different reasons. According to John Gottman’s theory of Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it can one of many predictors of change, which can signal you to the fact that your relationship has problems that need to be worked out.

Is stonewalling grounds for divorce?

Stonewalling is not necessarily grounds for divorce, but it may be a predictor of divorce. John Gottman, a psychologist and award-winning researcher, has researched what factors lead to divorce. Gottman created the Horseman Stonewalling theory to explain how stonewalling may an aspect of a relationship that ends in divorce, especially if it happens long term.

Conclusion

Stonewalling isn't a healthy way to communicate in any relationship. Once you've identified the signs and possible causes, you and your partner can work through your issues and learn to communicate in a positive, meaningful way. With a little work and a little commitment, you can create a truly fulfilling relationship. Take the first step today.

Therapy Is Personal

Therapy is a personal experience, and not everyone will go into it seeking the same things. But, keeping these nine things in mind can ensure that you will get the most out of online therapy, regardless of what your specific goals are.

If you’re still wondering if therapy is right for you, and how much therapy costs, please contact us at contact@betterhelp.com. BetterHelp specializes in online therapy to help address all types of mental health concerns. If you’re interested in individual therapy, please reach out to contact@betterhelp.com. For more information about BetterHelp as a company, please find us on 
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