Stonewalling - Ways to Deal with It

By: William Drake

Updated December 21, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Sonya Bruner

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.

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Typical Stonewalling Behavior

A person can stonewall in the following ways:

  • Keeps quiet 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
  • 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 Stonewall in Relationships?

When a person stonewalls, the assumption is often made that he or she is 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.

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, it amounts to denying emotions the gentle space they deserve. They just need to be felt. Suppressed feelings tend to behave like 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.

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If a spouse persists with stonewalling, despite all the efforts of their partner to draw him or her 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, he or she displays the need to disengage. This psychological removal from relationships and situations can result in dire fallout. If left unaddressed, stonewalling is likely to cause severe marital 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 relationships at work, 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 him or her. It is a truly disempowering way to conduct relationships.

How to Deal with a Partner's Stonewalling

Realize You Are Probably Not the Problem

First, give your partner the benefit of the doubt - you are probably not the problem. He or she may feel overwhelmed by a crisis that is difficult to discuss. Consider not trying to engage him or her, especially if this is uncharacteristic behavior. Your compassionate reassurance of availability whenever he or she feels 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.

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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? 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.

Take Care of Yourself

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.

To deal with these, Gottman suggests the practice of physiological self-soothing. This involves taking time out to calm your agitated feelings, and to 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 is he/she always doing this to me?"). You're making things worse for yourself. Look for distractions and keep yourself busy with a hobby, soothing music, watching a good movie, taking a walk, etc.

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. Here are some 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.

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 he or she has had enough and is planning an exit. Red flags should jump up for you.

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.

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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 better deal with stonewalling within yourself and your 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

"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.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is stonewalling in a relationship?

Stonewalling is a strategy used by one partner in a relationship to avoid the other partner.  It involves refusal to communicate and an unwillingness to solve problems.  A person who is stonewalling may use the silent treatment or give you the cold shoulder rather than being willing to talk things out.  Although it is a characteristic of refusing to communicate, it is a type of nonverbal communication as the person’s behavior communicates disinterest or lack of empathy. In addition, stonewalling is a defense mechanism used by people who are unable to process their emotions.

Is stonewalling passive aggressive?

Stonewalling is a type of passive aggressive behavior, and also stonewalling is a defense mechanism.  When a person is stonewalling another, their silent treatment, body language may be used as a passive way of expressing anger, resentment or hostility without having to directly express those feelings.

How do you deal with stonewalling?

The effects stonewalling can produce can be detrimental to a relationship if the behavior is not dealt with. It can leave you feeling overwhelmed and hurt.  It may feel difficult dealing with the passive aggression that a person who is stonewalling exhibits.  However, it is important to address the behavior so that it can be stopped.

  1. Empathize with the person who is stonewalling. As frustrating as it may be, if you take the time to show empathy, they will begin to realize that you are listening to them.   This is a way to show that you are concerned about the relationship and it helps to relieve some of the negative feelings and tension that stonewalling causes.
  2. Realize it’s not about you. When a person is behaving in an unfavorable way, it is a reflection of who they are and how they are, not you.  If you can realize this and try to make their behavior not feel like a personal attack, it can help you feel less defensive. 
  3. Remember, you don’t have to fix them. As much as you may want to change the situation or fix the problem, if a person is exhibiting toxic behaviors such as chronic stonewalling, the only way things will change is if they want to.  Although you don’t have an obligation to fix them, you do have an obligation to care for yourself.  Part of self-care is knowing when you need to take some time apart so that you can focus on your own needs. 

What is narcissistic stonewalling?

Narcissistic personality disorder is a personality disorder that is characterized by a need for excessive admiration, an exaggerated sense of self-importance, and a lack of empathy toward others.  People who have narcissistic personalities may resort to using stonewalling to manipulate others who do not give them the attention they believe they deserve.  They may give you the silent treatment or completely disengage from you if they think the result will be to get your attention.   While it is sometimes beneficial to our mental health to take a break from people who hurt us or make us feel bad about ourselves or our relationship, stonewalling is a completely different level of disengaging. 

Is stonewalling a form of Gaslighting?

While some of the characteristics of stonewalling and gaslighting are similar, they are not the same thing.  Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that involves an abuser making a victim doubt their own sanity.  It is a severe form of emotional and mental abuse.  Although stonewalling may occur when someone is gaslighting you, it can also happen in the absence of gaslighting abuse.

How do you get someone to stop stonewalling you?

The first step in having healthy communication in any relationship is to be willing to open yourself up to address the negative issues at hand.  The effects stonewalling creates can leave you feeling overwhelmed, completely shutting down and ignoring the situation will not make it disappear.  There are ways to engage in healthy conflict resolution that can lead to relationship satisfaction for you both.  A few steps to help you put an end to someone stonewalling you include:

  1. Observe your own communication patterns. It is easy to begin feeling overwhelmed and want to disengage or be totally unresponsive when someone stonewalls you. It is also easy to see the other person as the villain in a bad situation.  The first step in putting an end to stonewalling is to look at how you communicate.  Even if you feel justified, coming across as abrasive can make the person who is stonewalling pull away from you even more.  If possible, try to be approachable and let them feel like they have an open invitation to communicate with you any time they want.
  2. Be willing to open yourself up to them, even if they aren’t. Although you may feel frustrated, taking the time to show that you are open to talking and resolving problems is important.  If possible, try to not be defensive.  Listen to what your partner has to say and don’t be judgmental.  The more comfortable a person feels communicating with you, the more likely they will be to open and stop stonewalling behavior.
  3. Make eye contact. Nothing says you’re interested more than making eye contact when you are trying to communicate with someone.  Even if the person who stonewalls is totally unresponsive to you, it will be difficult for them to avoid connecting with you when you try to make eye contact.

What is emotional shutdown?

Emotional shutdown is a term used to describe a person’s reaction to overwhelming or hurtful things.  In a relationship, when one person feels they are unable to communicate with their partner, they may detach themselves from the relationship.  Emotional shutdown is a type of coping mechanism seen in people who are afraid of rejection or who have been deeply hurt by someone else. Sometimes the effects stonewalling produces include emotional shutdown. As mentioned earlier, stonewalling is a defense mechanism. This does not mean that we should excuse stonewalling behavior-but it's helpful to understand that someone who stonewalls is experiencing emotional pain themselves. 

Is stonewalling narcissistic?

In some cases, stonewalling can be considered a form of narcissistic behavior.  While not everyone who stonewalls is a true narcissist, stonewalling does involve some traits of narcissistic behavior, including ignoring those who don’t show attention or admiration. 

What does it feel like to be stonewalled?

Being stonewalled can leave you feeling depressed, angry or sad.  It can cause deep feelings of loneliness and rejection.  It is not uncommon to feel increased anxiety and experience physical symptoms such as nausea or rapid heart rate because of the frustration that stonewalling causes.  The effects stonewalling creates will not always be obvious right away. It is important to address the issue as soon as possible to try to prevent long-term issues such as anxiety, depression or chronic health issues related to stress.

How do you respond to stonewalling in a marriage?

While stonewalling in a marriage is not necessarily a predictor of divorce, it can wreak havoc on even close relationships.  It is not healthy behavior for a married couple.  If you are in a marriage where stonewalling is common, it is important to address the issues as soon as possible.  Try to talk to your spouse about the behavior and how you feel.  Even if they don’t seem to care, if they are willing to sit down with you, that’s a good sign.  When you talk to them, don’t use accusing statements.  Rather, make eye contact and talk as calmly as possible.  Be sure for every negative thing you feel that it is important to discuss, you include at least one positive thing about your relationship. 

State your concerns and what you would like to see happen in the relationship such as more quality time together or more one-on-one communication.

If you feel overwhelmed by the behavior and you aren’t sure how express yourself, you may find that engaging in couple’s therapy is a good way to learn effective communication skills.   A licensed counselor or therapist who specializes in couple’s therapy can offer a neutral ground for you and your spouse to meet and begin to open up to one another.  It doesn’t matter how long the behavior has been occurring, if you both want to preserve your marriage, there are ways to overcome the effects of stonewalling in your marriage.

What is stonewalling in marriage?

Stonewalling is when one person in the marriage ignores their spouse on purpose. Stonewalling is often a tactic used as a power play or is used when someone feels overwhelmed.

Signs of stonewalling include:

  • The silent treatment. This is the most obvious one, with many people who stonewall refusing to speak.
  • Removing oneself from the situation and going to a quieter place. This can occur if the person who is stonewalling is doing so because they need some space.
  • Changing the subject. Sometimes, the person may speak, but they will deliberately ignore a subject they don’t want to discuss.

Why do people stonewall?

People stonewall for many reasons, both maliciously and not. Let’s look at some of the reasons.

·         Fear of Conflict or Response:  Some people shut down due to the fact that they don’t know what to say or are afraid of a response. One reason why more men stonewall than women stonewall is because a man may not know how to express his emotions as much.

·         Wanting Some Space:  Some people are exhausted mentally and may stonewall because they need some space but may not know how to express it. It’s a way for them to soothe themselves.

·         As an Abusive Tactic:  In some cases, stonewalling can happen because of a tactic of abuse. The abuser wants to make the person beg for forgiveness, or wants to drive them into a rage, rather than have a healthy debate. Deliberate stonewalling is a sign that a relationship is getting toxic, and this should be remedied as soon as possible.

How do I stop stonewalling in a relationship?

If you’re stonewalling, the best thing you can do is to learn proper communication strategies and learn how to overcome subjects that make you feel uncomfortable. Stonewalling psychology is fascinating and doing research into it can help you when you’re having trouble stopping stonewalling.

Otherwise, you can seek help from a couple's therapist.

What it feels like to be stonewalled?

It hurts. Someone who is stonewalled may feel many negative emotions, such as anger, depression, hurt, reminiscence for the old days, and much more. Being stonewalled can make you want to end the relationship. As such, it is something that you should seek help from a therapist about.

How do you respond to stonewalling?

Don’t respond in anger. Instead, try to be diplomatic and explain your situation. Try extending an olive branch. With that said, establish clear boundaries as well. Don’t let your spouse bring you down. In fact, you should work hard to show your spouse that it does not affect you.

When you end up responding to stonewalling in anger, your spouse wins. If you're still unsure of what to do, seeking help from a therapist is what we recommend.

How do you know when your marriage is really over?

While it’s not over until it’s over, there are some signs to look out for that could prove that your marriage is about to end. Here are some of them.

  • You and your spouse don’t communicate that much anymore. When you do talk, it’s very small.
  • It feels like you and your spouse have drifted apart and no longer have much in common like you used to.
  • You can imagine yourself being with someone else, or your spouse being with someone else.
  • You can imagine a future without your spouse.
  • Your goals are wildly different. For example, both of you may disagree on the issue of children.
  • You’re always arguing and can never compromise on anything. Instead, you use toxic debate tactics in order to get your word in.
  • Many of these issues can be reversed through therapy. Therefore, one of the biggest signs of trouble in a relationship is if neither of you want to go to therapy.

How do you respond to silent treatment?

If you’re a victim of the silent treatment, or stonewalling, you may wonder what the antidote to stonewalling is. Is there a way for you to defeat it? Should you even try engaging with a person who stonewalls? It can be difficult to answer these questions, and there are many ways to respond, including:

  • The antidote to stonewalling is sometimes to ignore the person back. The person stonewalling you wants you to get emotional, and if you don’t give them that pleasure, the person who is stonewalling may end up backing off from it.
  • If someone stone walls, one response is to be diplomatic. Say you’re willing to talk it out. Make it about them, or make it about you, but don’t aggressive.
  • Setting up boundaries towards the person who is stonewalling can help prevent it in the future. Establish that stonewalling is not the answer, and the negative effects of stonewalling are toxic.
  • Remember to take care of yourself. Be happy, improve yourself, and don’t show the person who is stonewalling you any defeat.
  • If the stonewalling practice continues, consider therapy. You may need the help of a couples counselor to stop the person who stone walls.
  • Finally, consider ending the relationship. You don’t deserve to have someone who is always toxic to you.

What are the four horsemen in relationships?

In Christianity, the Four Horsemen are a symbol of the end times, and this symbol is also carried over to marriage, where there are four horsemen who symbolize a marriage that may be at its end if things don’t turn around.

The horsemen are:

1. The first horsemen, Criticism

This is the first sign that something is wrong in a relationship. There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of criticism when asked for, but criticism in this context is toxic. It’s often aggressive critiques of one's character instead of a productive conversation.

For example, you may be told “You’re always rude,” instead of the more productive line of “Your words are harmful to me.” Often, marriage can end up in a cycle of unproductive criticism if left unchecked.

2. The second horsemen, Defensiveness

When you are criticized, your first instinct usually is not to acknowledge that there may be something wrong with you, but instead to defend yourself against what you may find to be unsubstantiated or unfair claims. You may end up getting aggressive, ignoring your partner, or bringing up your partner’s flaws or past problems as a way to defend against your own. Sometimes, defensiveness and stonewalling go hand in hand, which will come later.

3. The third horsemen, Contempt

This is when you show pure dislike for your spouse or partner by being snarky, passive-aggressive, rolling your eyes, or doing something else to put them down. Sometimes, you may hide the contempt as “I’m just joking,” even though it’s quite obvious you’re being serious. Other times, you may end up showing it outright.

4. The fourth horsemen, Stonewalling

The fourth horsemen, stonewalling occurs as the final horsemen in a marriage. Simply put, it’s when you ignore your spouse altogether, either as a punishment or all the time. The tactic of the fourth horsemen, stonewalling is used mostly as a power play, and it can end up end a divorce. When one person isn’t willing to work it out, that’s when the marriage falls apart.

If your marriage is suffering from the four horsemen, it doesn’t mean it’s over. Instead, you should seek help from a therapist, or work together to form an amicable solution. Usually, the final horsemen, stonewalling, seal the fate of the marriage unless help is received.


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