What Is Stonewalling? (2023)

Where does stonewalling come from, and how do we recognize and deal with it?

What Is Stonewalling? (2)

Stonewalling is withdrawal from a conversation when the other person raises a criticism or concern (Gottman, 1989). In the face of a conversation that somebody does not want to have, they simply tune out, or refuse to talk about the topic at hand. The key aspect here is that there is some kind of conflict that needs to be resolved, but one person is simply unwilling to have that conversation.

Often, stonewalling occurs in relationships. It has been studied the most in the context of romantic relationships (e.g., Gottman, 1994) because conflict and the need for effective conflict resolution are hallmarks of romantic relationships.

Research tells us that stonewalling happens most in couples that have a certain kind of dynamic. In particular, stonewalling is most frequent in couples where one person is more likely to get upset about things, and then voice those concerns, while the other person tends to avoid conflict (Busby & Holman, 2009). This is also sometimes called a pattern of demand and withdraw behavior (Holley et al., 2013).

Relationships where one or both partners stonewall the other are generally much less satisfying and stable than relationships that do not feature stonewalling (Busby & Holman, 2009). As we will see in more detail below, stonewalling is often a sign that a relationship has devolved to the point where one or both partners are so reluctant to engage with the other that they stonewall against any kind of meaningful connection (Gottman, 1994).

What Does Stonewalling Look Like?

A telltale sign of stonewalling is intentionally not paying attention to the other person, especially when they are trying to get the stonewaller’s attention (Coan & Gottman, 2007). When a stonewalling person does engage in conversation, they will use little eye contact, give minimal answers, not move around much, and not advance the conversation in any meaningful way (Gottman, 2000). For example, they may turn away from the person who is speaking, respond in grunts, or simply not respond to what has been said (Gottman & Levenson, 1992).

Another tactic that clearly demonstrates the desire to stonewall in the conversation concerns facial expressions. Stonewalling involves little facial movement (Coan & Gottman, 2007). The face of a person who is stonewalling may look frozen or stiff, like they are clenching their neck and jaw tightly (Gottman, 1989). This could reflect the actual physical effort involved in resisting the natural urge to respond to somebody who is speaking to you. It is effortful to shut down in the face of somebody you are close to, but that is exactly what stonewalling entails.

Why Does Stonewalling Happen?

The romantic relationships researcher John Gottman, who was one of the first people to define and study stonewalling, described the series of events by which a person can arrive at stonewalling (Gottman, 1994). In the face of initial criticism, a person can easily become defensive. When that defensiveness is met with contempt, one might stonewall you to avoid having to face your contempt.

On the other hand, it might be that in certain circumstances, any criticism is just too much; it floods our systems, and in the face of that overwhelm, we instinctively try to shut everything out. For example, a person who has experienced sexual assault might become flooded when their partner makes a sexual advance toward them. In this situation, stonewalling might be a very natural response – it seems likely to keep them safe from having to think about it or be sexual.

How Do I Stop Stonewalling?

If you realize you are stonewalling, it is probably in the context of topics that are pretty challenging for you. First of all, know that this is okay – we all have hot-button topics that fill us with dread or make us want to stick our fingers in our ears. Here are a couple steps you can take to deal more effectively with that reaction (Carpenter, 2020):

  1. Acknowledge what’s happening. You could say, “It is just too hard for me to talk about this right now” or “I know this is important to you, but I get overwhelmed when I think about this.”

  2. Find a better time to discuss. You could say, “Can we come back to this tomorrow morning? I think a full night’s sleep would help me be ready to talk”, or “How about we come back to this topic after I’ve had my morning coffee?” or even, “I think this is something that we should wait to talk about until we see our couples’ therapist.”

  3. Take care of yourself. Do what you need to do so that you’re ready to come back to the topic later. That might mean taking a walk, calling a friend, having a hot drink, or doing some other activity that will help you relax.

It is really important, if you want to stonewall about something, you do your best to bring the topic up yourself at the time you suggested. This sends the opposite message of what stonewalling sends. It says: “I have a hard time talking about this, but it matters to me and I will figure out how to have the conversation.”

Responding to Stonewalling

If somebody is stonewalling you, I would encourage you to gently suggest that they follow similar steps to what I just described. It’s important to stand by how important the issue is to you, though. Here’s something you could say:

“I really want to have this conversation, but it doesn’t seem like a good time. When would work better for you? Is there anything I can do to help us have a better time with this topic?”

In Sum

I hope that this article gives you an understanding of why people stonewall and what to do about it. Stonewalling is a clear sign that either a relationship is in trouble or that a particular topic is very upsetting for somebody. If there is stonewalling happening around you, try to understand it in a calm moment. What is threatening about the topic to the person who is stonewalling? What would make the conversation feel safer for that person? With careful consideration of these questions, you stand a better chance of promoting better communication in your relationships.

References

  • ​​Busby, D. M., & Holman, T. B. (2009). Perceived match or mismatch on the Gottman conflict styles: Associations with relationship outcome variables. Family Process, 48(4), 531-545.

  • Carpenter, E. T. (2020). Stonewalling and taking a break are not the same thing. Family Perspectives, 2(1), 10.

  • Coan, J. A., & Gottman, J. M. (2007). The specific affect coding system (SPAFF). In J. A. Coan & J. J. B. Allen (Eds.), Handbook of emotion elicitation and assessment. Series in affective science (pp. 267–285). New York, NY: Oxford University Press

  • Gottman, J. M. (1989). The Specific Affect Coding System (SPAFF) (Unpublished manuscript). Seattle, WA: University of Washington.

  • Gottman, J. M. (1994). What predicts divorce: The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

  • Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1992). Marital processes predictive of later dissolution: Behavior, physiology, and health. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 221–233.

  • Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2000). The timing of divorce: Predicting when a couple will divorce over a 14‐year period. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62(3), 737-745.

  • Holley, S. R., Haase, C. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2013). Age-related changes in demand-withdraw communication behaviors. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 75, 822–836.

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FAQs

What is stonewalling in a relationship? ›

What does it mean to stonewall someone? In simple terms, stonewalling is when someone completely shuts down in a conversation or is refusing to communicate with another person.

What are stonewalling Behaviours? ›

Stonewalling can include avoiding a discussion of one's feelings, refusing to give nonverbal communication cues, walking out in the middle of a discussion without warning or explanation, or simply refusing to discuss the issue at hand.

What is an example of stonewalling? ›

Making accusations rather than talking about the current problem. Using dismissive body language such as rolling or closing their eyes. Engaging in passive-aggressive behaviors such as stalling or procrastinating to avoid talking about a problem. Refusing to ever acknowledge the stonewalling behavior.

What triggers stonewalling? ›

Define stonewalling

Gottman calls stonewalling one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse that happens in romantic relationships. Evidence reveals that it happens when a partner feels overwhelmed, shuts down emotionally, and breaks eye contact. It is seen in both healthy and dysfunctional relationships.

Is stonewalling Narcissistic? ›

Stonewalling is the refusal to communicate with someone. This means that your spouse refuses to listen to you and your concerns. Stonewalling is one of the most prevalent narcissistic abuse techniques.

Is stonewalling Gaslighting? ›

The emotional effects of stonewalling include a sense of helplessness, worthlessness, and powerlessness. It can have a serious impact on a person's self-esteem. This is a natural response particularly, as stonewalling is widely considered a form of gaslighting.

What is the cycle of stonewalling? ›

In 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. Metaphorically speaking, they build a wall between them and their partner.

Is stonewalling a form of manipulation? ›

According to Gottman, stonewalling can be used as a form of manipulation or punishment and not just a way to avoid conflict. Teens may shut down or stonewall parents during the high-stress period of puberty. A teenager might find it challenging to manage their expectations, especially from one social group to another.

What type of message does stonewalling send? ›

Stonewalling Effects on Victim

In fact, Gottman and Levenson (2000) described the presence of stonewalling as one of the surest signs that a relationship might soon end. He observed that stonewalling sends the clear message that the stonewaller is not interested in trying to save, or even work on, the relationship.

How long does stonewalling last? ›

A break is usually short while stonewalling can last hours, days, or even longer. Stonewalling is considered a type of psychologically abusive behavior of the passive-aggressive kind. It involves entirely shutting the other person out and ignoring them, which causes them to feel like they are worthless and unimportant.

What are the consequences of stonewalling? ›

Emotional stonewalling can have serious consequences for relationships. It creates feelings of isolation, neglect, and frustration in the affected partner. It also makes it difficult to communicate effectively. This leads to further conflict or distance in the relationship.

How do you argue with a Stonewaller? ›

Let's look at a few examples of what you can say.
  1. Let your mate know the partnership is a priority for you. ...
  2. Express how you recognize the stonewalling. ...
  3. Don't point fingers. ...
  4. Don't try to change your partner. ...
  5. Good intentions are the hope. ...
  6. Make yourself present at the moment. ...
  7. Schedule a time to talk. ...
  8. Don't forget about yourself.
Mar 14, 2022

How do you communicate after stonewalling? ›

How to Respond to Stonewalling
  1. Discuss topics in a safe space. If your partner bristles at conversations in public, try only bringing them up in a safe space where they will be comfortable.
  2. Give an ultimatum. ...
  3. Offer help. ...
  4. Prioritize self-care. ...
  5. Take a breather. ...
  6. Tell your partner how you feel.
Nov 29, 2022

What is the silent treatment stonewalling? ›

The silent treatment, also known as stonewalling, is when a "listener withdraws from an interaction, refusing to participate or engage, essentially becoming unresponsive," explains John Gottman, world-renowned psychological researcher.

Is stonewalling the end? ›

How Serious Is It In A Marriage? According to the research of psychologist Dr. John Gottman, stonewalling is a predictor of not only marital conflict and strife but also the end of a relationship.

Is stonewalling passive-aggressive? ›

Stonewalling, which happens when someone stops communication altogether, is one of the most toxic forms of passive-aggressive behaviors, says Manly. It's also a leading predictor of divorce.

What are the four horsemen of stonewalling? ›

The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. Being able to identify the Four Horsemen in your conflict discussions is a necessary first step to eliminating them and replacing them with healthy, productive communication patterns.

Do Stonewallers ever change? ›

Acknowledge that the only way a stonewaller's patterns will change is if they are willing to change them. If you're the only one willing to work on the relationship, reconsider it. Aggressive stonewallers sometimes act like victims to protect themselves.

Is stonewalling toxic behavior? ›

There's no doubt that stonewalling is a very toxic emotional abuse that you shouldn't do to your partner. Stonewalling partner leads to a lot of negative effects on your romantic relationship, which may lead to a divorce or breakup.

Is stonewalling fight or flight? ›

Often, those who stonewall feel overwhelmed by conflict and they either shut down or remove themselves from it in order to escape feeling overwhelmed. The stonewaller may feel that they are going into fight or flight mode. Stonewalling is emotional flight. It is typically done in an attempt to avoid conflict.

What is a stonewalling mental illness? ›

Stonewalling As Emotional Abuse

It involves withdrawing from the interaction by ignoring a person, walking away, or simply shutting down. Stonewalling can leave the other person feeling disrespected, invalidated, and dismissed. Stonewalling can be an attempt to gain control or power over the other person.

Is stonewalling manipulative? ›

According to Gottman, stonewalling can be used as a form of manipulation or punishment and not just a way to avoid conflict. Teens may shut down or stonewall parents during the high-stress period of puberty. A teenager might find it challenging to manage their expectations, especially from one social group to another.

Is stonewalling toxic in a relationship? ›

Conclusion. There's no doubt that stonewalling is a very toxic emotional abuse that you shouldn't do to your partner. Stonewalling partner leads to a lot of negative effects on your romantic relationship, which may lead to a divorce or breakup.

What is the difference between Gaslighting and stonewalling? ›

Stonewalling and gaslighting are both forms of emotional manipulation. The person who stonewalls will try to make it seem like you are overly emotional. The person who is gaslighting tries to make you think you are losing touch with reality.

What is the difference between stonewalling and the silent treatment? ›

The silent treatment is meant to hurt the other person where stonewalling is flooding and self-perseverance. Sometimes it can feel like your partner is doing both so it can be hard to differentiate.

How long can stonewalling last? ›

A break is usually short while stonewalling can last hours, days, or even longer. Stonewalling is considered a type of psychologically abusive behavior of the passive-aggressive kind. It involves entirely shutting the other person out and ignoring them, which causes them to feel like they are worthless and unimportant.

What is the difference between GREY rock and stonewalling? ›

Grey Rocking vs.

On the other hand, stonewalling is an emotional reaction, where you shut down emotionally and give someone the “silent treatment.” Stonewalling is usually considered a kind of emotional manipulation, whereas the grey rock method is a method used to deal with someone who employs emotional manipulation.

What is an alternative to stonewalling? ›

In place of stonewalling, try using time-outs during conflict. Do not wait for things to build past the point of no return to remove yourself. Many couples develop a code word or phrase that allows one partner to signal that they need to take some time away from the conversation.

What is significant other stonewalling? ›

Stonewalling is when one or both partner shuts down and refuses to respond whenever there is conflict. This leaves many unresolved issues, which can spell disaster in a relationship. Understand that stonewalling is likely rooted in trauma, and you may need professional help to overcome this damaging habit.

Why you should never give your partner the silent treatment? ›

In general, the silent treatment is a manipulation tactic that can leave important issues in a relationship unresolved. It also can leave the partner on the receiving end feeling worthless, unloved, hurt, confused, frustrated, angry, and unimportant.

References

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