Signs Of Stonewalling: The End Of Your Relationship?

Updated April 14, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you experience stonewalling in your relationship, you have a personal understanding of how it can damage you and your partners ability to successfully communicate and work through conflicts to a resolution. Being on the receiving end of someone who is stonewalling can literally feel like there is a solid unsurmountable barrier between you and your partner. You may also tend to stonewall during conflict, simply because you feel overwhelmed, withdrawing to feel comfortable and safe. Stonewalling is a significant contributor to interpersonal communication breakdowns and learning how to identify signs and causes of it can help mend relationship scars. You may go through a spectrum of emotions when your partner stonewalls you and are looking for ways to manage this defense mechanism. In this article, we will define stonewalling and its signs, explain the effects on a relationship, and offer solutions that can help improve relationship dynamics. 

What Is Stonewalling?

Brenda stood at the doorway of the bedroom, engaged in an animated rant about the odd chores that still needed to be done around the house. 

"For six months, I've been asking you to take care of these simple repairs, and you won't do them. You have the know-how, the tools, and the time -- but nothing happens. You refuse to lift a finger."

Her partner Liam sat on the bed, his back turned toward Brenda, not saying a word. His rounded shoulders gave no sign that he had heard anything she said in the conflict. He had no emotions towards her issues or gave any sense that he had heard her frustration. This is an example of stonewalling. 

Stonewalling is a tactic used in an argument that can be a negatively affect a person’s emotional  and physical health, especially when the stonewalling occurs in a romantic relationship or marriage. Someone who is stonewalling in a relationship avoids engaging in an emotional discussion, problem-solving about feelings, or any sort of emotional cooperation or resolution. They don't address conflict, pain, anger, desire, or fear. In a sense, they are impeding a relationship of emotional intimacy with you.

The person stonewalling you may sit sullenly and silently while your heart rate rises, and you become more and more excitable because you do not feel heard. Or they might dismiss everything you say as if you are boring, unreasonable, or "making a big deal out of nothing." They act as though they have reduced hearing. Being stonewalled can feel as if you are literally talking to a wall.

While you try to address your emotional concerns during a conflict, a person stonewalling acts like you are not important or have nothing valuable to say to them. In a situation like this, online therapy can be beneficial to help you process how to respond to their actions.

Could Stonewalling Be Present In Your Relationship?

Stonewalling Signs In A Relationship

Conflict will bring up interpersonal emotional behaviors that seem to control the tide of the argument. When a couple is having a conflict or discussion, there typically is two roles being filled, one of speaker and the other listener. In a relationship with communication problems, two common emotional behaviors that arise are anger and stonewalling – through which the one who is angry takes the speaking role and the one who tends to stonewall remain quiet and tune out. 

As seen in the example above, each took a role, with the stonewalling behavior emerging in response to the anger. In psychological terms, this is known as demand-withdraw behavior which can be a destructive pattern of communication that typically leaves both parties hurt or withdrawn.

Usually, people stonewall when there is something in their relationship that they do not want to discuss, the result of which is the silent treatment. Or you may get a few grunts or an occasional "Mmm" -- noncommittal verbal gestures that add no substance to your conversation and do nothing to deflate the situations. Stonewalling is a defense mechanism to avoid others and the conflicts they present, now and in the future. 

What Are The Signs That Someone Is Stonewalling You?

Stonewalling can be obvious at times, and other times it is subtle. You might not even realize it's going on. Here are some of the signs of stonewalling in a relationship:

  • You start serious conversations by criticizing your partner.
  • Your partner ignores you when you speak.
  • Your partner addresses you by your given name rather than a nickname.
  • Your partner is suddenly busy with something else whenever you want to talk seriously.
  • Your partner uses righteous indignation when you accuse them of stonewalling.

Other signs of stonewalling may be more obvious. Pay careful attention to body language and other types of non-verbal communication by looking for:

  • Lack of eye contact
  • Showing you their back
  • Crossed arms
  • Feet pointed toward the door (or away from you)
  • Staring at objects
  • Leaving the place you're in to "get space"

How Can You Tell If You Are The Person Stonewalling?

Do you find that when a conflict or serious discussion arises with your partner, you retreat and are unable to emotionally connect? If you have been stonewalling someone else, like your partner, you may not realize what you are doing to them or the reasons why you are doing it. Be aware of the following signs that may indicate stonewalling: 

  • You immediately feel defensive when your partner asks a question or expresses concern.
  • You avoid arguing at all costs, even if it means walking into another room.
  • You would rather say nothing at all than to say something that will cause a fight.
  • The other person is totally unresponsive to your emotional pleas.
  • Being "right" in a conflict is so important that you are willing to jeopardize the relationship.

Stonewalling Effects 

Even if you know how to define stonewalling and you can identify instances of it in your relationship, you may not understand the seriousness of this type of behavior. In fact, some relationship psychologists will state that this is one of the most destructive habits in a relationship. Stonewalling can be a sign of severe marital distress. Partners relying on this form of unhealthy communication to deal with relationship problems may signal an impending breakup. When someone is on the receiving end of this type of behavior regularly, they may begin to doubt their value as a person or feel like they are mentally unwell. A lot of other obsessive behaviors may develop as well. This is a natural response because stonewalling is a form of gaslighting. A relationship in which this happens often can have tremendous challenges until both partners meet the issue head on and learn communication tactics to address things more productively. 

Can Stonewalling Be Considered As A Form Of Abuse?

Stonewalling is harmful, but is stonewalling abusive? Psychologists recognize abuse as behavior that belittles, demeans, and disrespects. If you want to have a healthy, happy relationship, you have all the motivation you need to quit stonewalling. You cannot control the other person's behavior, of course, but there are some ways you can begin to change the way you communicate. The following tips may help:

  • Work with a counselor to improve your self-esteem and negotiation skills.
  • Make it a point to practice softening the way you present a concern.
  • Don't start a serious conversation with a complaint or criticism of your partner.

How Serious Is It In A Marriage?

According to the research of psychologist Dr. John Gottman, stonewalling is a predictor of not only marital conflict and strife but also the end of a relationship. The other three predictors are criticism, contempt, and defensiveness, and when combined with stonewalling, they have been called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. 

What To Do If You Are The One Stonewalling Someone

Finding out you may be emotionally abusing someone without realizing how your behavior impacts the other person can be difficult to accept What can you do now? How can you make changes? Here are a few tips to help you improve your communication:

  • Try to see the discussion as a problem-solving session rather than a contest. Ask your partner if you can take a break from the conversation and come back to it later, in order to provide them with a proper explanation for your behavior. 
  • If you feel defensive when you have a conversation, tell your partner you feel that way. This may be a good time for both of you to take a physiological self-soothing break or do some other sort of self-care. Take a walk, have a cup of coffee, or shower to "wash away" the defensiveness. 
  • Remind yourself that listening to your partner will make them feel heard, even if you do not agree with them. Validating their opinion can go a long way toward having a meaningful conversation, even about difficult topics like trust, sex, or parenting. 
  • Avoid placing blame on your partner or yourself. Stonewalling hurts, but if you have the ability to talk objectively about the matter, you have a chance that your relationship will not end in divorce. 

If you are feeling overwhelmed by the conversations you are not having with your partner, look for signs of stonewalling meaning or cases in your relationship. Then contact a relationship therapist who can help you initiate creative problem solving and develop coping strategies as you discover how to reconnect emotionally. It may be that couples counseling is a way to get you to have the conversation you need to save your relationship and work toward resolution. 

Getting Relationship Help

You may be wondering if relationship counseling will help the communication issues in your relationship, especially if you and your partner are stuck in a cycle of demand and withdrawal behaviors characterized by stonewalling and frustration or anger. Contemplating divorce in and of itself is a painful place to be in your relationship. Before you consider breaking up or divorcing you significant other, relationship counseling offers you both the opportunity to express your concerns, frustrations, and desires in a safe environment of impartiality directed by a professional therapist. The lack of knowledge about communication skills often leads to unhealthy interactions and lack of conflict resolution between couples. A therapist can help inform you both on healthy communication behaviors you both can practice especially during times of stress. 

Coordinating schedules to meet with a therapist can be problematic for many couples along with the time it takes to prepare, travel to, and attend therapy sessions. Online therapy is a convenient option for both of you through which you both can work together to resolve communication issues in the comfort of your own home. Furthermore, most conflict occurs in the home space. You and your partner can help build new and productive pathways of communication in the space that you may struggle the most to work together. Research also supports the benefits of online therapy for couples counseling. For example, a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health looked at how effective online psychoeducational interventions using the Gottman method was in improving marital communication in 72 heterosexual couples living in Shiraz, Iran. Results from the study showed that the couples ability to communicate constructively improved significantly as their tendency to stonewall or withdraw and demand reduced. 

If you are considering online therapy, BetterHelp has several therapists available to help you on your path to healing your relationship. Starting is easy, and therapy is convenient and affordable. The sooner you and your partner address this difficult problem with patience, the sooner you can leave these problems in the past and live the life that makes you happy.

Other Frequently Asked Questions 

What Is Stonewalling In A Relationship?

The Gottman Institute identified stonewalling as one of the Four Horsemen, or harmful communication styles that often lead to the end of romantic relationships. Stonewalling is present when one person withdraws from the interaction or conflict. It typically occurs when an individual feels emotionally overwhelmed or psychologically flooded. Research has found that men tend to be more likely to stonewall; however, when women stonewall, there is a strong likelihood of eventual divorce.

How do you react to stonewalling in a relationship?

The Gottman Institute notes that the antidote to stonewalling is psychological self-soothing. When an individual stonewalls, they are likely psychologically flooded, which can manifest in physical signs such as increased heart rate. In such a state, it is not productive to continue discussing the matter at hand.

Instead, both you and your partner should walk away and take a break for at least twenty minutes to do something calming. Taking the time and space to self-soothe can allow both parties to return to the discussion feeling calm and grounded.

If stonewalling is an ongoing pattern in your relationship, you may consider seeking the support of a couples therapist. They can assist you and your partner in developing more effective communication patterns, which can lead to increased relationship satisfaction.

What Is Stonewalling And Gaslighting? 

 Stonewalling and gaslighting are both forms of emotional manipulation. The person who stonewalls will try to make it seem like you are overly emotional. The person who is gaslighting tries to make you think you are losing touch with reality. Either way, they try to come across as more emotionally stable than you, and the negative effects can be devastating.

Is Stonewalling Narcissistic? 

It can be a narcissistic matter. Although narcissists use stonewalling to trigger your emotions and put their needs above yours, not everyone who stonewalls is a narcissist. Some people may stonewall be they are at a loss for words.

What To Say To Someone Who Is Stonewalling You? 

Tell the person you recognize what they are doing. Your response to them might go something like this:

"I see you're not interested in this conversation, so let's take a break. The subject is important to me, so I'd like to revisit it with you in a few days."

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