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What is Stonewalling in a Relationship, And How to Prevent it
Relationship Advice

What is Stonewalling in a Relationship, And How to Prevent it

Do you or your partner ever put up a "stone wall" during a fight? Also known as the silent treatment, here are the signs of stonewalling and how to prevent it.

Together Team
February 28, 2022

Everyone responds to stressful situations and conflict differently since we have all learned different coping strategies as we have grown up. Some people are always ready to engage and are prepared for (hopefully constructive) conflict. Others may quietly retreat and return with well-thought-out arguments and an air of diplomacy.  

Then there are those who…well…do nothing. These are the stonewallers.

What is stonewalling?

Stonewalling means giving your partner the "silent treatment". A stonewalling partner, or stonewaller, is able to “tune out” from their partner’s bid for attention, particularly when those bids come across as demanding. Stonewalling is typically part of a relationship dynamic where one partner takes the role of “pursuer” while the other becomes the “withdrawer”. 

Ironically, those who we'll call "engagers" (the pursuer, or the opposite of a stonewaller) and stonewallers frequently seem magnetized to each other in relationships. Perhaps their dynamic where one partner is more dominant than the other is beneficial in everyday life, but when there is conflict, this dynamic becomes problematic.

When disagreements arise, nothing can be more infuriating to the engager than someone who appears unwilling to participate.

Signs of stonewalling

You probably already know if you are inclined to — or on the receiving end of — stonewalling.  However, when a stonewalling partner avoids communication, they can make it seem like it’s your fault and deflect the responsibility. 

Here are signs of stonewalling in a relationship:

  • Not listening
  • Switching topics
  • Abruptly leaving with no explanation
  • Making excuses to avoid talking
  • Roundabout answers or dodging of questions
  • Deflecting and blaming other people instead of tackling the problem at hand
  • Appearing bored or unconcerned using non-verbal behavior, like eye rolling or sighing dramatically
  • Feigning ignorance that they are stonewalling
  • Short answers like “yeah”, “ok”, “mmm”
  • Frozen facial expression: a rigid neck and jaw

Styles of Stonewalling in a Relationship

In his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. Gottman (founder of the Gottman method couples therapy) suggests that there are four ways couples handle conflict:

  1. Avoidant
  2. Validating
  3. Volatile
  4. Hostile  

Stonewalling typically arises between volatile and avoidant type of partners, and the person engaging in this behavior may be doing so intentionally or unintentionally. This mismatch in styles is the least functional after the hostile type approaches.

Intentional stonewallers

Intentional stonewallers know how to manipulate their partners and situations. Stonewalling is a way of exerting control in the couple’s dynamic and, in extreme cases, can be a tool to punish their partner.

Unintentional stonewallers

On the other hand, unintentional stonewallers have usually learned this behavior as a reaction to uncomfortable or distressing situations to avoid or bury their emotions. They try to prevent an argument from escalating, or they are so concerned about what sort of reaction their partner will have they would rather avoid it altogether.

It is important to note that withdrawal is not necessarily the same as avoidance, although some researchers and therapists will use these words interchangeably. Gottman differentiates the two by explaining that avoidance styles of conflict means that rather than tackling a problem head-on, the partner would instead give time and space to an issue allowing it to resolve itself. 

Avoidant types avoid being close to others, so they don't always engage in the positive aspects of the relationship. This is different from partners who have a withdrawal style and entirely disengage from the relationship, both the positive and negative aspects. They build a barrier between themselves and their partner to remain unaffected.

Causes of stonewalling

Lin-Mei Liao believes that stonewalling is an emotion management strategy. People who stonewall do so because it has worked for them so far, even if you can see that it is a poor way of handling a situation. It is wise not to assume that your partner behaves intentionally, even though this style exists.  

Some stonewallers may be disengaging because they subconsciously believe this is the best route to de-escalate an emotionally charged situation. Perhaps they have learned that emotions aren’t safe or acceptable in the past?

Certain beliefs about themselves may make stonewallers think that they are unable to handle certain feelings or topics. If questioned, they may not be able to come up with a logical reason why, since a child can reach these conclusions years before rational thinking is properly developed.

Stonewallers may think that their partner doesn’t even want to resolve the conflict. If their partner is confrontational and aggressive, stonewallers may assume that they simply enjoy the conflict and, therefore, will refuse to engage. 

If they feel that no matter what they do or say, their partner will continue to criticize, yell, or blame no matter what they do or say, stonewallers may “freeze” as they feel they run out of options. Or, when they were growing up, they may have had a significant caregiver or adult who was relentlessly unreasonable. Therefore they believe any attempt to engage with such people is futile.

Of course, there are some people that will purposefully manipulate their partners using the silent treatment to get what they want. Stonewalling can be a technique used to annoy a partner, making the partner seem like the one who is out of control and responding inappropriately to the situation.  

In extreme cases, they may have a (conscious or subconscious) motive to end the relationship altogether. The people who use stonewalling intentionally typically have diminished self-esteem and use this behavior to bring the other person down to feel better about themselves.

While this doesn’t make their behavior less upsetting, understanding why someone is shutting off can help you understand these defense mechanisms and learn how to deal with them.

How stonewalling affects relationships

To be on the receiving end of stonewalling can arouse various emotions, ranging from low self-esteem to inciting rage. Indeed, stonewalling damages relationships because it either gives the partner the message that they are unimportant, faulty, or not worthy of engaging with. The silent treatment can exacerbate the very emotions one was trying to avoid. 

Furthermore, when one withdraws from a heated situation, they communicate the message that they are not able or willing to fight for connection. In the moment, most “pursuing” partner would prefer that their partner fights back rather than seem like they can’t be bothered.

It is not only our relationships that are affected. A 20-year longitudinal study by Haase et al. in 2016 found that stonewalling in relationships can lead to lower physical health. Physical symptoms included sore backs, necks, and achy muscles in general. This is just one study that exemplifies how our relationships and emotions greatly affect our physical health.

How to handle stonewalling

Firstly, acknowledge that the stonewaller, whether you or your partner, isn’t doing anything "wrong." This is simply related to the environment that they grew up in. Whether through a caregiver or by trial-and-error, a stonewaller learned that disengaging was the best option. Whatever the reason, they are stonewalling because it feels safe and it has been thoroughly practiced. 

This empathic stance needs to be combined with patience. A lifetime of avoiding difficult conversations is not likely to be undone with one carefully executed conversation.

Next, understand that the best way to overcome stonewalling is together. Regardless of whether it is you or your partner who is withdrawing, in order to heal, there must be an acknowledgment on both sides. Not just that this behavior is a problem, but that the other person has probably triggered it.  

While neither party needs to be "wrong," both may have something to work on to learn how to communicate more effectively.

One of the most effective ways of learning new communication styles is with the help of a relationship counselor. Having an impartial observer to help mediate and facilitate discussions can help identify triggering behaviors and situations to speed up the process of reaching resolutions. 

6 tips to prevent stonewalling

Whether addressing the issue of stonewalling independently or with the help of a counselor, keep these tips in mind: 

  1. Be prepared to give and receive feedback, some of which might surprise you or you disagree with. Try to welcome this unforeseen insight. After all, if you had been aware of these points all along, you wouldn’t be in the current situation. New information can provide unique solutions.
  2. LISTEN. Really absorb what is being said to you. Try to digest this and what your partner is trying to say before formulating your response. Even when you think you know what you want to say, check and make sure it is really the message you want to give.
  3. Consider what your non-verbal communication is conveying. Are you angled away from your partner with your arms crossed? Or are you making some eye contact and leaning into the conversation? (Did you know that our body language accounts for 60% of our communication?!)
  4. Take reasonable breaks. Even if you want to keep going, this process could take some time. Having a breather is particularly important if you or your partner isn’t used to talking about how they feel. If one of you gets overwhelmed, it could stall or even end the whole process. 
  5. Think about the setting. Make sure you are in a quiet, neutral location with a low risk of being interrupted. Try to keep meaningful conversations to occasions where the both of you are reasonably less stressed, and you have time on your hands.
  6. Take care with the language you use. An unintended word can be misinterpreted as critique or accusation, and disrupt your progress. Practice starting sentences with “I feel” rather than blaming the other person for acting in specific ways. Remember that, “I feel that you always…” doesn’t count! Instead, consider using a feelings wheel to help keep the focus on yourself. 

Stonewalling can be avoided

Stonewalling can vary in its intensity and is triggered by a wide variety of circumstances. Some people may use it to control others, while most are just entirely unaware of the distress this is bearing upon their partner.  

The good news is that relationships can recover from stonewalling if both parties are willing to work together to understand each other and find new, healthier ways of communicating. In some cases, it can be helpful to have an objective third party help identify stonewalling behavior and guide couples in the direction of collaboration to prevent it.

Together Team

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