Stonewalling: Ways to Deal with Stonewalling And Passive Aggression

Updated October 6, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The definition of stonewalling is behavior intended "to delay or obstruct by refusing to answer questions or by being evasive." Stonewalling is so harmful to relationships that well-known relationship therapist and researcher, John Gottman, MD, calls it one of the 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,' while the other three are criticism, defensiveness, and contempt. Everybody has experienced or performed one or more of the "Four Horsemen" at some point. While it is difficult to deal with a stonewalling person, it is harmful to yourself to stonewall. However, we can offer hope for improvement from both sides of the coin. For more complicated situations, online therapy can help a person move forward in a healthy and productive way.

Typical Stonewalling Behavior

In a relationship, a person stonewalling will exhibit some of these behaviors:

  • Keeps quiet and gives the silent treatment when addressed, remains unresponsive despite inquiries, or replies with terse, single-word responses
  • 'Tunes out' - pretends not to hear or listen
  • Turns or walks away from the speaker when addressed; pretends the other person is invisible or not present
  • Acts busy, always on the move, or too occupied to engage in conversation; avoids eye contact and emotional intimacy
  • When criticized, even in peaceful conversation, changes the topic midway to something unrelated
  • Changes the topic to the speaker's perceived shortcomings or faults

Why Do Some People Use Stonewalling In A Relationship?

When a person stonewalls in a relationship, the assumption is often made that they are angry, rude, irresponsible, childish, or simply disinterested in relating to others or the world. This might be true for some, but this type of defensive behavior is often nuanced and multi-faceted. Research has shown that men are more likely to stonewall in relationships than women. The reasons for stonewalling may be various and often not nefarious at all. Sometimes stonewalling is compared to gaslighting, though the latter usually involves the person attempting to convince the other person of a reality different from what they experienced.

Defense Against Being Overwhelmed

Stonewalling can be a coping mechanism and a way of disappearing into a person's metaphorical 'man cave.' This space may offer them much-needed inner (sometimes outer) solitude to deal with crises that overwhelm emotionally. Unable to express or differently process how they feel, they prefer to simply 'vanish' emotionally when uncomfortable. While solitude can be healthy, prolonged stonewalling is not a good relationship strategy. Women are not exempt from stonewalling behavior due to being overwhelmed, but this behavior tends to be more common in men.

Emotional Suppression

When a person defers too easily to stonewalling as a coping mechanism in a relationship, it amounts to denying emotions the gentle space they deserve. They just need to be felt. There are negative consequences to suppressed feelings. Think of suppressed emotions as vampires - unless one can confront the beast and drive a stake through its heart, it is likely to rise again, usually more intense than before. The link between depression, physical illness, and emotional dysregulation is a solid one.

Aggressive Manipulation

This is the most toxic motive behind stonewalling in relationships. In its more innocent form, it is an avoidance technique implemented in order not to deal with problems or situations, but the aggressive stonewaller favors her or his preferences in the relationship and uses stonewalling behavior to have his or her way. These traits, in themselves, are detrimental, selfish, and immature - not good for relating. This type of stonewalling is often abusive, or borders on such.

Need To Learn How To Deal With Stonewalling?

If a spouse persists with stonewalling, despite all the efforts of their partner to draw them out, it could be that the stonewaller has something to hide. It could be as nefarious as an extra-marital affair or a crime, or it could be the loss of a job or a failure to manage an addiction to food, video games, nicotine, etc. The withdrawal from the relationship may indicate anything from shame to wanting to end the relationship. There are many possibilities for why a partner may stonewall and what their motives are.

In extreme cases, the reason behind manipulating others in this manner may be a disorder such as borderline personality disorder, narcissism, or sociopathy. Other factors suggest manipulative stonewalling, such as when a person denies, despite evidence to the contrary, that their stonewalling is:

  • Abusive
  • Belittling to others
  • Invalidating of others' observations and feelings
  • Rationalizing abuse

Relationships are a two-way street. If one person persistently withdraws from the relationship, it cannot survive.

How Does Stonewalling Affect Relationships?

When a person stonewalls, they display the need to disengage. This psychological removal from relationships and situations can result in dire fallout. Research by the Gottman Institute found that when stonewalling is present, both parties may experience reduced levels of empathy, decreased ability to process information (such as reduced hearing) and lowered capacity for problem solving. If left unaddressed, stonewalling is likely to cause severe marital or relationship distress, conflict, and disruption. Studies have convincingly linked these upheavals in marriages to depression, poor social competence, withdrawal, health problems, and poor academic performance in children. In women, these types of upheaval are proven to cause illness, and in men, they tend to cause loneliness. The destabilizing effect of divorce, a likely outcome of severe and persistent stonewalling, needs no elaboration.

In the Workplace

Stonewalling can have the same catastrophic effect on a workplace relationship, which will eventually affect work performance. Strained relationships can result in loss of personnel, with financial losses for the employer. If the stonewaller is in a managerial position, this behavior is likely to poison everyone who works under them. It is a truly disempowering way to conduct relationships.

How To Deal With Stonewalling From Someone

Realize You Are Probably Not the Problem

First, give your partner the benefit of the doubt - you are probably not the problem. They may feel overwhelmed by a crisis that is difficult to discuss. Consider not trying to engage them, especially if this is uncharacteristic behavior. Your compassionate reassurance of availability whenever they feel ready to discuss what is happening may just open the door to greater communication. It may even strengthen your relationship. If there is a problem, your partner's first step is to ask for help. You cannot force her or him to let you help them.

Keep Your Side of the Street Clean

Maybe you are part of the problem. Check your behavior. Sometimes stonewalling can be a defense against criticism or a response to perceived aggression and hostility. Are you encouraging when your partner engages with you in conversation? Or, do you judge, condescend, and attack if your partner admits their faults? A lack of empathy and compassion from your side can encourage stonewalling. Consider your side of the situation, and it will help to clear up your role.

Psychological Self-Soothing

Maybe you have made every effort to address a problem by attempting to talk about it. Perhaps you have refrained from a negative attitude, and you have remained supporting. If your partner still stonewalls you, then stop. Things are likely to escalate, and you need to take care of yourself. You are likely to feel infuriated by your partner's behavior and consumed by difficult emotions.

Feeling emotionally overwhelmed or flooded can spur the flight or flight response, and symptoms such as increased heart rate. At this point, it is important to take a break in order to allow both parties to calm down and re-regulate. Gottman suggests countering stone-walling through the practice of physiological self-soothing. You can take a break to calm your agitated feelings, and give your partner the space to adjust their behavior. Gottman also suggests, however, to avoid stewing in thoughts of righteous indignation ("I don't have to take this!") or playing the victim ("Why are they always doing this to me?"). Instead of ruminating on the argument, distract yourself by listening to, soothing music, watching a good movie, taking a walk, etc. Studies have shown that taking the time to self-soothe allows both parties to re-engage in the conversation more calmly and productively.

Don't cling to a distress-inducing mindset when your partner makes an effort to adjust their behavior. All relationships are visited by the Four Apocalyptic Horsemen (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) from time to time. Solid relationships are built when partners find ways to deal with each Horseman constructively.

Red Flags of Stonewalling

Your stonewalling behavior is likely to have a variety of effects on others. It is horrible for any relationship, romantic or otherwise, and can even become a form of emotional abuse that requires professional help. Here are some signs of stonewalling, and red flags that identify stonewalling behavior.

Abandonment

A stonewaller will give their partners feelings of abandonment. This can be a devastating emotion to deal with, especially for a spouse, and the effect will show in the relationship. Marriage is a transactional agreement to partner with someone, and your disengagement demonstrates that you're no longer available for or interested in the partnership, no matter what your true motivations are. This can destroy your partner’s self esteem.

Perceived Punishment

If you're stonewalling in the workplace, your colleagues will probably feel that you're punishing them for undisclosed errors or misconduct. This could affect their confidence levels, and eventually, their work performance. Unless you have sadistic tendencies, don't expect positive outcomes from shutting co-workers off.

This is true for other relationships, including partners, friends, and children. When you stonewall, they may feel as though they are at fault. It can be incredibly harmful and confusing for those around you. A person who persistently stonewalls removes the oxygen from relationships. This is likely to make others feel very helpless and incompetent.

Stonewalling Sprawls into other Negative Emotions

Stonewalling can sprawl, branch out, and infect relationships in new ways. Whoever is being stonewalled is likely to progress to secondary feelings of fear, anger, and aggression to engage you again. His or her internal response will probably be: "She doesn't care" or "He doesn't love me anymore." This could give rise to increasingly desperate attempts to break through to you with escalating aggression.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Many people who stonewall feel justified in their behavior because "I just want to be alone." It feels safe and comfortable, even righteous, to want an unhealthy amount of space. However, if your partner 'miraculously leaves you alone,' it could be a sign that they have had enough and are planning an exit. Red flags should jump up for you, and you should address stonewalling with them in conversation and communicate your feelings, before it’s too late.

Recognizing Stonewalling

If you're able to recognize this behavior in yourself, then you deserve congratulations. It speaks of emotional maturity. Truly accepting that one needs to change for the sake of better relationships is one of the hardest psychological milestones to achieve. Furthermore, fully understanding how your stonewalling is affecting others could go a long way towards building your empathy muscles. It can also help to prompt change and the discovery of different relationship strategies.

Need To Learn How To Deal With Stonewalling?

Engage to the best of your ability and express your desire to engage. If this is very difficult for you and your partner, consider couples' therapy, personal counseling, or a workshop on inner healing. Learning how to face and deal with difficult emotions will be a hard but rewarding journey to embark on. You won't regret making the choice to do so.

Therapy for Stonewalling Behavior

Not all negativity in relationships is equally corrosive. Defensiveness, stonewalling, contempt, blame, and criticism are very counterproductive behaviors and need the most urgent attention if a relationship is to be saved. However, when these begin to manifest, it need not be a sign of a pending relationship apocalypse. All types of behavior are modifiable with effort and self-regulation.

Consider finding a professional therapist or counselor on BetterHelp to address harmful behaviors such as stonewalling, and move towards a healthy and happy relationship. They are trained to assist with this, or any other psychological or emotional problems you may be facing. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews: Stonewalling In Relationships

"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 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!!!"

Conclusion

Stonewalling is considered to be one of the Four Horsemen for a good reason. Although the stonewalling of a partner can ruin the strongest of relationships, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. Take the first step to fulfilling, healthy relationships today.

Below are some commonly asked questions on this topic:

What is stonewalling in a relationship?

Stonewalling is when one partner shuts the other down by shutting them out, being evasive, or obstructing emotionally difficult conversations by refusing to respond and communicate. One partner in every relationship is typically a bit stronger at facing issues head on by wanting to talk and address the conflict, while the person who is stonewalling typically ends up feeling overwhelmed more easily by emotions and difficult conversation in a relationship. So they resort to tactics of blatant avoidance.

These tactics include body language that is closed off, avoidance of eye contact when the other partner is trying to talk, being totally unresponsive when their partner asks a question, giving the silent treatment, and other rejecting nonverbal communication.

People stonewall for various reasons, some of which are immature, uncaring and cruel, and some of which are defense mechanisms they likely developed earlier in life. Stonewalling is not always a form of emotional abuse, but it has very negative effects for the partner on the receiving end and overall relationship satisfaction.

Is stonewalling the same as silent treatment?

Stonewalling is usually a set of behaviors with the purpose of refusal to communicate or cooperate with any perceived conflict. This most commonly happens in romantic relationships, but a stone wall behavior can happen in any type of conflict with others. The silent treatment is a common form of stonewalling in a conversation, effectively shutting the other person out who may be attempting to work through a conflict. But the silent treatment is just one of multiple other obsessive behaviors employed by a person stonewalling.

What is an example of stonewalling?

Stonewalling most commonly occurs in romantic relationships. Men are more likely to stonewall than women, but women stonewall as well. As an example, imagine someone approaches their partner to discuss something their partner said that upset them. But the partner has a tendency to shut down during a conflict, so they turn their back to their partner and refuse to face them. Then their partner pleads with them to look at them, but the stonewalling person doesn’t verbally respond and pretends they don’t hear anything. Then they might even walk away and abandon the conversation completely.

Stonewalling can be extremely emotionally damaging for both people involved. An antidote to stonewalling may come in the form of couples counseling. This might be necessary for both partners to develop creative problem solving when conflicts arise and improve overall communication.

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