How To Know If Someone Is 'Stonewalling' You (And What To Do About It)

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man trying to talk to woman with crossed arms looking in other direction

Researcher and couples therapist John Gottman famously identified what he calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in relationships — communication issues that are the most likely to predict the eventual failure of a marriage.

Those four relationship issues are: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

What is stonewalling?

Stonewalling, also known as "the silent treatment," is a defense mechanism where the person stonewalling shuts down, avoids, withdraws from, or refuses from engaging in communication with the other person in the relationship.

The person stonewalling may want to stop further discussion and create distance in response to feelings of discomfort, shock, or becoming overwhelmed, and because they may want to shut down emotionally.

Directly or indirectly, this implies that their partner's emotions are unworthy, and it often leads to the other person feeling vulnerable, confused, and deeply hurt.

As a ripple effect, physical intimacy is often halted, which can lead to decreased self-worth, self-esteem, and insecurities. Research has even shown that, over time, stonewalling leads to "excessive wear and tear on the musculoskeletal system and the development of musculoskeletal symptoms."[1]

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Examples of stonewalling

1. Avoiding verbal and non-verbal communication.

2. Refusing to talk about the issue or changing the subject.

3. Storming out of the room without saying anything.

4. Ignoring you when you're talking.

5. Refusing to answer questions.

6. Engaging in passive-aggressive behavior.

7. Dismissing or invalidating your concerns.

8. Being unwilling to address their stonewalling behavior.

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Why do people stonewall others?

When a partner becomes silent, there are many reasons why. It could be to avoid conflict, avoid discussing pertinent issues in the relationship, or avoid communication in general.

Unfortunately, the damage it causes to the partner who's subject to stonewalling can be psychologically damaging, with links to depression.[2] A study published in 2016 found evidence of depressive symptoms in both partners, due to decreased marital satisfaction overall as the common denominator.[3]

Is stonewalling a form of abuse?

While counts as abuse can be subjective, stonewalling can be seen as emotional or mental abuse[4] due to the psychological trauma it causes.

Stonewalling not only affects the person being stonewalled, but also the relationship, ultimately, as a whole.

I can tell you that the experience of living with someone who is cold toward you, only talking about surface-level things, and avoiding any real or deep conversation haunts me every single day.

I would ask myself on a daily basis how I could make this better and create reasons in my head that it was my fault. Why else would he not communicate with me and work on our issues?

Well, to no surprise, he walked out on me. If I wasn't confused, hurt, angry, or frustrated among many more emotions, I most definitely was now.

I felt lost... I felt abandoned... I felt worthless.

I spent and still spend sleepless nights trying to figure out when things started spiraling downhill and if it could have been prevented. How could he have done this without hesitation? It felt like I was being continually punched in the stomach for weeks upon weeks. I still feel it at times.

When I ask him questions about the relationship, I am either ignored or receive very vague answers. Avoidance at its finest. I was planning to spend the rest of my life with this man who was now a stranger to me.

This avoidance and emotional withdrawal will never be forgotten. The feeling of being so lost and so confused will forever be a mystery as to why everything happened the way it did. The devaluation and lack of importance to someone I slept next to every night haunt me still.

The emotional investment I put forth until the day he left exhausts me to even think about. So, I think in a way, it can be a form of abuse due to the conscious effort to emotionally withdraw from the relationship while I dug myself into a deeper hole in attempts to help him and our relationship.

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What to do when someone is stonewalling you

According to Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist Lianne Avila, in order to cease stonewalling in a relationship, it's largely up to the person doing the stonewalling.

She recommends physiological self-soothing to calm yourself down and adopt healthier ways of managing conflict and emotions.

For those being stonewalled, it's important to give the stonewaller time to calm themselves down instead of attempting to immediately address a situation.

You can suggest to them during a time when things are not heated that when something is difficult to talk about, you aren't against them and are only trying to help things between you. Tell them that you're happy to give them time to take a cool-down break and go for a walk, meditate, do a yoga session, watch a funny episode of one of their favorite TV shows, journal, read a book, or simply practice some deep breathing exercises in solitude.

This can allow them to self-soothe and calm down sudden reactions of overwhelm and emotional discomfort before coming back to the discussion with a clearer mindset that isn't in a state of fight or flight so they can talk things out more constructively with their partner.

Ultimately, however, stonewalling should be addressed together so you can take the blame out of either side of the relationship and think of it as communicating collaboratively.

Sometimes, the best way to do this is to seek professional help, such as in couples counseling. That way, you can identify the root causes of why the stonewalling is occurring.

In either case, try to learn how to pause and listen to each other before responding, and try to accept what each person is saying as feedback, rather than criticism.

Be thoughtful and empathetic about where the other person may be coming from, and considerate of tone of voice, word selection, and body language.

Finally, if things become too heated, decide to put the conversation on hold so both of you can cool down, have a physical space wherever you are where each one of you can go to call a "safe space," and choose a time to come to the table or to figure out when it would be best to do so.

While stonewalling is one of Gottman's Four Horsemen, it certainly doesn't have to mean the end is near.

Try to think of it as a signal that prioritizing communication in your relationship comes first.

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Brittney Lindstrom is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Certified Rehabilitation Counselor.