Stonewalling: A Form Of Emotional Abuse

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated June 2, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article 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). Free, private support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Stonewalling, or the refusal to communicate with someone meaningfully, is a form of emotional abuse that can harm relationships and self-esteem. This type of behavior can create higher levels of stress, depression, and anxiety among those who experience it.

Stonewalling may also adversely affect a person’s physical health. When we are unable to communicate with someone in a meaningful way, our bodies can become overwhelmed with anxiety, which can take a toll on our overall well-being.

Emotional abuse can take many forms and have far-reaching consequences, and stonewalling is just one of those forms. Awareness of the signs may help us defend ourselves from physical, mental, and emotional harm. Below, we’ll examine stonewalling in greater detail and explore strategies for addressing it effectively.

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Is Stonewalling Affecting Your Relationships?

What Is Emotional Abuse?

When most people think of abuse, physical violence or sexual harassment may come to mind. However, another type of abuse can be just as harmful but often goes unnoticed: emotional abuse.

Emotional abuse is 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. Unlike physical abuse, it can be challenging to recognize or prove.

While emotional abuse can take many different forms, it often comes down to one thing: the intent to cause emotional harm. Emotional abuse can include any behavior designed to manipulate, control, or demean someone. For example, the abuse may come in the form of verbal attacks, put-downs, gaslighting, and other manipulative behaviors.

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 and belittling a person
  • Insulting or humiliating a person in public 
  • Isolating a person from friends and family
  • Gaslighting, which involves making a person doubt their memories, perceptions, or sanity
  • Withholding affection or love as a form of punishment
  • Threatening harm or suicide if a person does not comply with demands

Emotional abuse is never the other person’s fault. No one deserves to be treated this way, and it may be necessary to seek help from a mental health professional if you are in an emotionally abusive relationship.

Why Is It Emotional Abuse

Communication is often a key to fulfilling relationships, but what happens when one partner decides to stop communicating altogether? This behavior is known as stonewalling.

Stonewalling is a communication behavior in which a person shuts down and becomes unresponsive during a conflict or discussion. It involves withdrawing from the interaction by ignoring a person, walking away, or simply shutting down. Stonewalling can leave the other person feeling disrespected, invalidated, and dismissed.

Stonewalling can be an attempt to gain control or power over the other person. By shutting down communication, the stonewalling partner expresses that they do not value the other person's feelings or perspective. This behavior may cause emotional distress and can be classified as emotional abuse.

Not only can it cause pain, but it may also create distrust in a relationship. When stonewalling becomes a habitual pattern, it can significantly damage a relationship. When one partner uses stonewalling as a communication method, the other may feel their needs, feelings, and opinions are not important to the relationship. It can damage the partner's self-esteem, leading to feelings of neglect and abandonment.

Chronic stonewalling can also cause the partner to feel resentful and unloved, potentially leading to relationship dissatisfaction, feelings of worthlessness, and a breakup or divorce.

When a relationship's foundation of trust is broken, it can be difficult to rebuild. It may help to address stonewalling and other forms of emotional abuse before they become toxic patterns that destroy relationships.

How To Identify Stonewalling

Stonewalling is a defense mechanism that some people use to defend themselves from perceived threats during communication. It occurs when a person emotionally withdraws from a conversation, refusing to engage or to communicate. It can be frustrating for people on the receiving end of stonewalling, as it can feel like the other person is shutting down the conversation entirely.

Here are some signs that may help you identify stonewalling:

  • Refusing to engage in conversation
  • Giving one-word answers or non-verbal responses
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Physically walking away from the conversation or leaving the room
  • Changing the subject
  • Replying with sarcasm or passive-aggressive comments

The Two Types

Intentional stonewalling is a conscious decision made by a person to stop communicating. It is often done to punish or control the other person. A person who stonewalls their partner may see it as a way to gain power.

On the other hand, unintentional stonewalling often occurs when a person feels overwhelmed, anxious, or powerless during a conversation. As a result, they might shut down and stop communicating because they feel they cannot handle the situation.

Identifying stonewalling can be challenging, especially if you're unsure what to look for. If you suspect that someone is stonewalling you, you might try asking open-ended questions to prompt a response. If they still refuse to engage, it is likely stonewalling. You can also observe their body language and tone of voice for clues.

How To Safeguard Yourself From Stonewalling

Stonewalling can be a frustrating and hurtful experience. It can leave you feeling powerless and unable to communicate effectively. However, there are ways to defend yourself from stonewalling and take control of the situation.

Below are some strategies to defend yourself from stonewalling:

Communicating Openly And Honestly

Communication is often key to successful relationships, and being open and honest may be useful when dealing with stonewalling. Also, listening actively to the other person and acknowledging their perspectives or feelings can be helpful.

When communicating, you might try using "I" statements instead of "you" statements. This way, you avoid sounding accusatory, and it may become easier to understand each other's positions.

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 safe and healthy 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 cannot communicate.

Taking Breaks

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

Practicing Self-Care

If you're experiencing emotional abuse, it can be helpful to devote time to self-care. Stonewalling can be emotionally draining and exhausting, but self-care may help you feel empowered and balanced. Examples of self-care 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

  • Doing something creative, like writing, painting, or crafting

Self-care can be a valuable tool for building resilience and emotional well-being. When you devote time to yourself, you are likely better equipped to manage challenging conversations and situations effectively.

Get Support With Stonewalling From An Online Therapist

Online therapy can be an effective way to get additional support and guidance if you're experiencing stonewalling or other forms of emotional abuse. A therapist may be able to teach you coping strategies and provide a safe space to express your feelings. When you have an outlet to express yourself, it can be easier to manage difficult conversations and confront the situations you are facing.

Research shows that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be an effective treatment for those who have experienced emotional abuse. CBT often focuses on helping individuals identify unhelpful thought patterns, understand how these thoughts impact their behavior, and develop strategies for overcoming them. As an evidence-based therapy method, it may help you manage the psychological consequences of stonewalling and other forms of abuse. 

Also, research has demonstrated that CBT can be effective when conducted online. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist with training and experience in CBT and emotional abuse. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors written by people who have experienced relationship challenges.

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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’re experiencing stonewalling, it is not your fault, and you don’t have to face it alone. Online therapy can be a valuable resource for additional support and guidance. With the right help, you can learn how to express your needs and defend yourself from emotional abuse. Take the first step to addressing stonewalling and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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