Is Stonewalling A Form Of Abuse?
Updated November 09, 2019
Reviewer 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.
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 as 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.
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.
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.
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 does 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.
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.
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 great 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.
"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."
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.