What Stonewalling Looks Like In A Relationship & How You Can Get Past It

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man and woman sitting on couch arguing

In a romantic relationship, you want to effectively communicate with your partner and feel loved and cared about.

You want to feel validated and listened to, but when you feel like your partner is turning away from you and has stopped listening, you may start feeling distant and lonely.

This is just one example of what can happen when "stonewalling" begins in your relationship.

You may have heard the term before and wondered, "What does stonewalling look like in a relationship, and is my partner doing it to me?"

RELATED: Stonewalling: The Ultimate Destroyer Of Relationships You've Probably Never Heard Of

What Is stonewalling in a romantic relationship?

Relationship therapist and author Dr. John Gottman is an expert on the elements of successful relationships. He founded the idea of the "Four Horsemen" — or the four major signs your relationship is in serious trouble. 

He has suggested that stonewalling is one of these "Four Horsemen," and that it is detrimental to an extreme.

Stonewalling means that when you are you partner are “ a discussion or argument, the listener withdraws from the interaction, shutting down and closing themselves off from the speaker because they are feeling overwhelmed or physiologically flooded.”

There are consistent patterns of stonewalling.

Men are consistently more likely to stonewall in relationships than women. They will withdraw emotionally from conflict discussions, while women remain emotionally engaged. When women stonewall, it's quite predictive of divorce.

Men are more likely to rehearse distress-maintaining thoughts than women, which may prolong their physiological arousal and hyper-vigilance, often causing their partners to flare up in response until both are brought to a point of emotional detachment and avoidance.

Male stonewalling is very upsetting for women, increasing their physiological arousal (things like increased heart rates, etc.) and intensifying their pursuit of the issue.

Why does stonewalling happen?

Stonewalling can happen anytime when your partner becomes emotionally dysregulated and stops talking with you.

Sometimes, you will observe the following signs that your partner is stonewalling: Tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive behaviors.

Other signs include: Saying as few words as possible, refusing to answer questions, asking for “space” from the other without explanation, remaining emotionless when asked to express feelings on the issue at hand.

Offering no opinions, responding with, “I don’t know what I want,” when asked to resolve issues collaboratively.

Agreeing to things only to get space from the other, therefore, not keeping “agreements.” Evading efforts of the other to resolve an issue or agree to a plan, withholding information that risks evaluation or angering or upsetting the other, and withholding affection.

All of these things will cause you to keep having the same arguments over and over.

RELATED: 8 Communication Skills That All Happily Married Couples Know

What's the difference between stonewalling and gaslighting?

You may have heard the terms "stonewalling" and "gaslighting," but these are two separate concepts. Stonewalling and gaslighting share common unhealthy communication patterns, but their intention differs.

With stonewalling, the intention is to shut down emotions that may trigger their own “feelings of inadequacy, rejection, and abandonment.”

The intention of gaslighting is emotionally abusive and “to tear down the defenses of another offensively.”

Gaslighting is “... a form of thought control… to get into the mind of another, manipulate fears and core needs. Specifically, to silence, belittle, rob the other of any sense of esteem or worth, visibility or presence in relation to the other.”

This is not what causes stonewalling.

How does stonewalling make you feel?

As the recipient of stonewalling, you may feel shut out, hurt, angry, and not heard. You may feel unloved and uncared for, because when you try to connect with your partner, you are ignored for hours, days, or even weeks.

This may create feelings of loneliness in your relationship. You may feel abandoned and clingy towards your partner, or stonewall and ignore your partner to try to hurt your partner in return.

Changing communcation patterns stops stonewalling.

After you start seeing the signs of stonewalling, you can change your communication patterns.

There are four distinct steps to recognizing and dealing with it.

Here are 4 ways to stop stonewalling in a relationship.

1. Recognize the signs of stonewalling.

You need to learn to look for the signs that your partner is starting to stonewall, such as looking away or shutting down.

2. Pause.

Before the situation happens again, you need to decide that next time it happens, you will stop the conversation.

You can stop the conversation by having a code word that signifies break time, using the referee "time out" hand signal, or asking for a break.

Honor the request if either of you calls a time out or pause, and recognize that the conversation is not going to be productive if you continue talking.

3. Learn self-soothing techniques. 

Beforehand, think of ways that you will take time to calm down, such as listening to soft music, performing meditation or relaxation, journaling, or using a calm app on your phone.

Dr. Gottman found that it usually takes 20 minutes to an hour to calm down enough to have an effective conversation.

4. Restart and repair.

When you restart the conversation, you may want to think about how you can discuss the topic in a effective, calm manner.

You may need to apologize for what happened in the previous conversation and repair by apologizing for things that were said when you were emotionally flooded.

Stonewalling in a relationship impedes communication and connection.

When you understand the signs of stonewalling and what stonewalling looks like in a relationship, you will be able to learn how to address it effectively.

RELATED: 4 Reasons You Should Never Block Your Partner's Calls When You're Arguing

Lisa Rabinowitz, LCPC is a licensed counselor in the state of Maryland. She is a certified Gottman Couples Therapist and PACT Level 3 Candidate. If you're looking to explore whether or not you should put off marriage, reach out for a 30-minute free private consultation today.