Communication is hard, especially in relationships. But, in order for a relationship to be healthy, there needs to be consistent communication and collaboration, even during disagreements. Intentionally shutting down during an argument, also known as stonewalling or the silent treatment, can be hurtful, frustrating, and harmful to the relationship.
Although a refusal to communicate or express emotion often occurs during a conflict, in some cases it may be present anytime one partner wants to discuss something. The immediate reaction of the other partner is to shut down and refuse to speak.
People who stonewall may do so to avoid escalating a fight or to avoid discussing an uncomfortable topic. They also might be afraid of their partner’s reaction and desperately want to keep the peace. In extreme cases, stonewalling is used to manipulate a situation, maintain control in the relationship, or to inflict punishment.
Stonewalling is rarely effective. And, if it becomes a habit, it can reduce a couple’s ability to resolve conflicts or interact intimately.
Overview of Stonewalling
Stonewalling may be an incidental reaction to a specific situation. Or, it can be a long-standing behavioral feature that defines the relationship. Stonewalling is broadly described by the following behaviors:
- A general discomfort in discussing feelings
- Dismissing or minimizing a partner’s concerns
- Refusing to respond to questions
- Refusing to make eye contact or offer nonverbal communication cues
- Walking away from discussions that cause stress
Unlike walking away to de-escalate a fight—which can be healthy—stonewalling communicates that a person is not willing or comfortable to discuss the matter any further. In a relationship, one or both partners may stonewall. They may even take turns stonewalling each other in retaliation.
Research suggests that men are more likely to stonewall, due in part to societal roles that place women as communicators and dictate that men are “strong and silent.”
Signs of Stonewalling
Many times, stonewalling in a relationship is obvious. However, it also can be subtle and you may not realize that you or your partner are engaging in stonewalling. Here are some signs that your partner may be stonewalling you.
- They ignore you when you talk.
- They start doing something else when you bring up a serious topic.
- They walk away without an explanation.
- They make excuses in order to get out of a serious conversation.
- They may not respond when you ask questions.
- They speak only to defend themself or to blame you.
- They don’t make eye contact or they roll their eyes.
- They dismiss your concerns as if they have no value.
- They make fun of you or speak in a condescending tone.
- They refuse to take responsibility for giving you the silent treatment.
Sometimes stonewalling is a learned response that partners use to cope with difficult or emotional issues. They aren’t trying to be controlling or manipulative. They simply want to avoid any personal discomfort. They prefer to focus on happy things and keep the peace.
However, there are times when stonewalling is intentional and abusive. In these situations, the people who stonewall often are fighting for control in the relationship. They use stonewalling, emotional abuse, and other unfair tactics to control the situation. If you think your partner is abusing you, speak with a counselor or therapist for advice.
Stonewalling vs. Healthy Boundaries
It’s important to note that stonewalling is not the same thing as asking for space or setting boundaries. Asking for time or space requires communication. When partners ask if they can discuss something later, they are not stonewalling you. In fact, insisting that they speak to you in that moment when they have asked for space is controlling. It’s important to allow partners the space they need when they ask for it. Ask for a specific time when you can discuss the issue further and then allow them their space.
Additionally, setting boundaries with someone who struggles with anger management, behaves in controlling ways, gaslights you, or is emotionally abusive also is not stonewalling. When a partner says something like, “I won’t talk to you about this while you are angry, yelling, and swearing. When you calm down, then we can talk further,” they are setting a boundary. This is not the same thing as stonewalling. They clearly communicated why they are not talking and what needs to change for them to be willing to have a discussion.
Causes of Stonewalling
While stonewalling can be hurtful, don’t assume that the strategy is inherently ill-intended or that the partner on the receiving end doesn’t play a part in the behavior. At its very heart, stonewalling is often a behavior born out of fear, anxiety, and frustration. In fact, there are a number of reasons someone may resort to stonewalling. Here are some key motivating factors.
- A generalized avoidance of conflict (emotional passivity)
- A desire to reduce tension in an emotionally-charged situation
- A genuine belief that they “cannot handle” a certain topic
- A fear of their partner’s reaction or where a talk may lead
- A belief that their partner has no desire to resolve the conflict
- An underlying hopelessness that a resolution cannot be found
- A means to establish themselves as neutral on the subjuct
- A way to view their partner as “emotional” or “unreasonable”
- A means to manipulate a situation so that they can get their way
- A means of bringing a situation to a crisis, either to draw larger grievances into the conflict or to end a relationship altogether
Stonewalling is oftentimes a tactic learned during childhood. It may have been a behavior their parents used to “keep the peace” or to gain dominance in the family hierarchy. Even if the stonewalling appears intentional and aggressive, remember that it’s often used by people who feel powerless or have low self-worth. Within this context, stonewalling may a defensive tool used to compensate for these feelings.
Impact on Relationships
Whatever the underlying cause, stonewalling can damage a relationship. Partners who are stonewalled often feel demeaned or abused. They may even begin to question their own self-worth. Moreover, shutting someone out often escalates the very situation it was meant to avert. It either forces a confrontation, or frustrations build to a point where regrettable things are said.
Some researchers have suggested that stonewalling is a key predictor for divorce. It signals an unwillingness to resolve problems central to sustaining the relationship. Other studies have shown that the behavior can have a direct physiological impact on both partners.
A 2016 study from the University of Berkeley, which followed 156 couples over a 15-year period, concluded that stonewalling was independently associated with acute musculoskeletal symptoms such as backaches, neck stiffness, and generalized muscle aches. By contrast, the stonewalled partner was more likely to experience cardiovascular symptoms such as increased blood pressure, tension headaches, and rapid heart rate.
How to Overcome Stonewalling
If stonewalling occurs within your relationship, it is best to deal with it as a couple. Whether you are the stonewaller or the person being stonewalled, you cannot isolate stonewalling as the problem. Doing so only assigns blame and ends up diminishing the larger issues in the relationship.
Because a relationship is unlikely to succeed without communication and collaboration, you need to find the right tools to “reprogram” old communication habits. This situation is one where couples counseling can help.
Couples therapy is designed to help both partners understand why the stonewalling is taking place. As a couple, you learn to identify behaviors or practices that lead to stonewalling. Once those are identified, you can then be taught a more structured approach to communication. Here are some elements that might be included in the strategy.
- Decompressing before approaching a contentious topic
- Finding a safe space where neither partner feels cornered
- Using words that are neutral rather than criticizing or accusing
- Expressing understanding of the situation and allowing each person to reply
- Being aware of body language while the other person speaks
- Acknowledging what was said before launching into a reply
- Accepting feedback and acknowledging wrong perceptions or mistakes
- Agreeing to postpone the conversation if things get contentious
- Setting a time to return to the conversation when things have settled
While it may take time to get used to these techniques, eventually they will become automatic. Then, you and your partner will be able to resolve situations rather than react to them.