Ways To Cope With Stonewalling In A Relationship

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated March 25, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised that the article below might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.
Is stonewalling affecting your relationships?

Stonewalling, or the refusal to communicate with someone meaningfully, over time, can sometimes be considered a form of emotional abuse that can harm relationships and self-esteem. Typically, stonewalling occurs when one partner refuses to respond to the other, often in an effort to avoid engaging in a conflict or discussing a potentially distressing subject.

The concept of stonewalling in relationships is closely associated with John Gottman, who eventually founded the Gottman Institute. In the ‘80s, Gottman conducted a study with Robert Levenson—the results of which were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology—titled “Physiological and Affective Predictors of Change in Relationship Satisfaction”. 

In this study, Gottman and Levenson found that heightened physiological states, as evidenced by increased heart rate and other factors, were correlated with lower relationship satisfaction. Such feelings were thought to have led to anger, fear, and other potentially challenging emotions. To self-soothe, some individuals avoided responding to their partners altogether—behaviors that were considered affective predictors of decreased relationship satisfaction.

Eventually, Gottman included stonewalling as one of the Four Horsemen, which are four behaviors that can have negative effects on close relationships and lead couples to break up. In his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Gottman explains how stonewalling can exacerbate a conflict. During a conflict, it is often important for partners to acknowledge each other’s concerns. When one partner stonewalls, the other partner’s feelings go unrecognized, which can make them feel worse. In such a situation, the couple may completely lose the ability to resolve their conflict, which can lead to serious relationship trouble.  

Particularly when intentional and manipulative, this type of behavior can contribute to stress, depression, anxiety, and other negative mental health outcomes among those who experience it.

Emotional abuse can take many forms and have far-reaching consequences, and stonewalling is just one of these potential forms. Awareness of the signs of dangerous stonewalling may help individuals defend themselves from harm in relationships of all kinds. Below, we’ll examine stonewalling in greater detail and explore strategies for addressing it.

What is emotional abuse?

When most people think of abuse, physical or sexual violence may come to mind. However, another type that can be just as harmful but often goes unnoticed is emotional abuse. It's a form of abuse in which one person manipulates or controls another person's feelings or behaviors through tactics such as degrading, insulting, and shaming. Emotional abuse can significantly impact an individual’s self-worth, make them doubt their own interpretation of reality, and create a power imbalance in a relationship. Signs of emotional abuse can often be challenging to recognize or prove.

While emotional abuse from a partner, family member, or friend can take many different forms, it often comes down to one thing: the intent to control and cause emotional harm. Emotional abuse can include any behavior designed to manipulate or demean someone. For example, the abuse may come in the form of verbal attacks, put-downs, or gaslighting. 
Emotional abuse can occur in any relationship, including romantic relationships, familial relationships, and friendships. It can be subtle or overt and can often be difficult to recognize, especially for those on the receiving end.

Some common examples of emotional abuse include:

  • Constantly criticizing or belittling a person
  • Insulting or humiliating  
  • Isolating someone from their friends and family
  • Gaslighting, which involves making a person doubt their own memories, perceptions, or sanity
  • Withholding affection or love as a form of punishment
  • Threatening self-harm if the other person does not comply with demands

Emotional abuse, whether it’s stonewalling or another form, is never the target's fault. No one deserves to be treated this way, and it’s generally recommended that you seek professional help and support if you believe you are in an emotionally abusive relationship. 

Is stonewalling emotional abuse?

Communication is often key to fulfilling healthy relationships, so what happens when one partner decides to give the silent treatment and stop communicating altogether? This behavior is known as stonewalling.

Stonewalling is a communication-related behavior in which a person shuts down and becomes unresponsive, often showing closed-off body language. It could be during a conflict or discussion or in day-to-day life. Stonewalling involves withdrawing from the interaction by ignoring a person, avoiding eye contact, walking away, or simply going silent and not returning to engage about the topic. When this occurs, it can leave the other person in the relationship feeling disrespected, invalidated, and dismissed.

The difference between needing a break from a difficult conversation, which is valid, and toxic stonewalling is that the latter is used as an attempt to gain control or power over the other person. By shutting down communication and emotional intimacy via the silent treatment, the stonewalling person expresses that they do not value the other person's feelings or perspective and want to make them feel isolated. This type of stonewalling behavior may cause emotional distress and can generally be classified as emotional abuse. 

When the emotional behaviors along with the body language of stonewalling become a habitual pattern that’s used with malicious intent, it can significantly damage a relationship. One person using it as a communication method can make the other feel that their needs, feelings, and opinions are not important. Stonewalling can damage their self-esteem as well, potentially leading to feelings of neglect and abandonment.

How to identify stonewalling

Knowing how to recognize stonewalling can help you address it when it occurs. It’s important to remember that stonewalling may be done unintentionally or intentionally. Unintentional stonewalling often occurs when a person feels overwhelmed or anxious during a conversation. As a result, they might shut down and stop communicating as a fight-or-flight response because they feel they can’t handle the situation. On the other hand, signs of stonewalling intentionally—which typically qualifies as a form of abuse—include one person making a conscious decision to stop communicating to punish or control the other or gain power.

Like other forms of emotional abuse, intentional, toxic stonewalling can sometimes be tricky to recognize. The fact that some people may shut down and avoid communicating or eye contact during conflict without malicious intent due to past trauma or overwhelm, as mentioned above, is one reason it can be hard to identify problematic stonewalling. 

Here are some signs that stonewalling may be abusive:

  • Refusing to engage in conversation repeatedly over time
  • Replying with sarcasm or passive-aggressive comments
  • Playing the victim in order to shut down a legitimate conversation about conflict or feelings
  • Only stopping the behavior when you give in or apologize
  • Ignoring or ridiculing the feelings you may share about this behavior
  • The sense that this behavior is done as a form of punishment

Tips for protecting yourself emotionally in relationships

Stonewalling can be a frustrating and hurtful experience that can leave you feeling powerless and unheard. That’s why it can be useful to practice certain techniques that may help you protect yourself in relationships. Note, however, that if your safety or well-being is at risk in a relationship due to stonewalling or other behaviors, it’s important to seek help and prioritize your safety.

Communicating openly and honestly

If you find that your partner, friend, or someone else in your life frequently shuts down when you try to communicate with them, trying some other communication tactics could be helpful. If they’re simply overwhelmed and not trying to manipulate you, expressing yourself calmly and gently using "I" statements, actively listening to whatever they may share, and taking time for breaks as needed could help. If you use such positive communication tactics with someone who continues to engage in stonewalling to the point where it becomes toxic, the situation may no longer be safe or possible to change.

Establishing boundaries

Setting boundaries can be a way of defending yourself when dealing with stonewalling. Being clear about the behavior you will or will not tolerate and setting limits on what you are prepared to accept may help create a more positive space for communication. Examples of boundaries could be calmly ending a conversation if you feel stonewalled or scheduling a different time to talk if the other person can’t communicate in the moment.

Taking breaks

You can take breaks if either of you feel overwhelmed during a conversation. Taking time out can help both parties relax and refocus on the conversation without feeling frustrated or panicked. However, you might be careful not to allow a break to be used as an excuse to avoid communication altogether. You can agree on when you’re going to speak again to ensure that the break is temporary and that the issue will eventually be addressed.

Practicing self-care

Stonewalling can be emotionally draining and exhausting, but self-care may help you feel more empowered and balanced. Examples of self-care could include:

  • Taking time for yourself to relax, reflect, and recharge
  • Engaging in hobbies that make you feel good
  • Spending quality time with family or friends who support you
  • Self-soothing by doing something creative, like writing or painting
Self-care can be a valuable tool for building resilience and emotional well-being while reducing stress. When you devote time to yourself, you'll likely be better equipped to manage challenging conversations and situations effectively.

Seeking support

Individual or couples therapy can be an effective way to get additional support if you’re experiencing communication challenges in your relationship. A trained therapist may be able to teach you coping strategies and provide a space where you can express and process your feelings.

Research suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in particular may be an effective treatment for those who have experienced emotional abuse. CBT often focuses on helping people identify unhelpful thought patterns, understand how these thoughts impact behavior, and develop strategies for shifting them. It may help you manage the psychological consequences of stonewalling or other forms of abuse. 

Research has also demonstrated that CBT may be as effective when conducted online as in person. That makes it a potentially viable alternative for those who have trouble locating an in-person provider near them or who simply feel more comfortable engaging in therapy from home or somewhere else they have an internet connection. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp for individuals or ReGain for couples therapy, you can be matched with a therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging to discuss your concerns.

Note that the best online or in-person therapy option is typically the one that feels most comfortable and convenient for you. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp online therapy counselors from people who have sought their help for relationship challenges.
Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Is stonewalling affecting your relationships?

Counselor reviews

"Dr. Murphy has been very helpful in identifying issues and behaviors that led me to withdraw from my relationships, and now she is helping me to repair them."

"Sharon Valentino has helped me through so much! Since we started working together, just a few months ago, I already feel like I have more power and control over my life. I have let go of some very painful things, I have moved away from abusive relationships and [am] really gaining skills and tools I need to keep myself safe and happy. She has taught me that I have the power to control my thoughts, my anxiety, and, most of all, my company. I really like how direct she is, it helps me get grounded and connect to myself. I can't wait to see where I am after working with her a year!!!"


If you think you may be experiencing manipulative, intentional stonewalling, you don’t have to face it alone. The crisis resources for those experiencing abuse listed above are typically the first recommended form of support to pursue. Couples counseling can also help you and your partner develop healthy behaviors and avoid stonewalling in your relationship. Online therapy can also be a valuable resource for additional support and guidance in recovering from a toxic relationship. 

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