Healthy communication is at the heart of great relationships. But when someone is avoidant and distant, communication is difficult and can have detrimental effects on your relationship (and your health!)
It turns out there might be a lot more going on beneath the surface—deep fears, shame, unresolved resentment. All of these deeper emotions can lead to what psychologists call stonewalling.
In this article, we’ll look at what stonewalling is, its examples, its causes, and some helpful tips on how to deal with it.
What is Stonewalling? (Definition)
Stonewalling is avoiding confrontation and refusing to discuss an issue or an argument. While it’s often referred to as giving someone the silent treatment, stonewalling isn’t always that apparent.
Stonewalling is often the result of an unwillingness or lack of understanding regarding how to articulate or process emotions well, especially when confronted with criticism, difficult feedback, or a hard conversation.
The body language1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5042820/ of someone who is stonewalling may include a clenched jaw, stiff neck, frozen posture, lack of eye contact, and one-word answers or grunts to questions.
Unfortunately, at its worst, stonewalling might be used as a form of emotional abuse to exert control over someone else or the situation. And according to research2https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-stonewalling/, stonewalling that is prevalent in a marriage can even predict divorce.
Some common stonewalling behaviors include:
- Ignoring or tuning out what someone is trying to communicate
- Dismissing or belittling someone’s concerns
- Avoiding a person, situation, or uncomfortable topic
- Refusing to engage in conversation
- Acting busy to avoid engagement
- Changing the subject when things get uncomfortable
- Exhibiting passive aggression
- Walking away or storming off when faced with conflict
Let’s look at some of the underlying causes of stonewalling.
What Causes Stonewalling?
Stonewalling is a response to emotions aroused in the body when someone is presented with critical feedback, conflict, or an uncomfortable situation. When someone stonewalls, research shows1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5042820/ their body reacts, their heart rate increases and stress hormones are released.
As someone attempts to avoid feeling their emotions or face the conflict, their body reacts to emotional flooding3https://dictionary.apa.org/emotional-flooding through stonewalling, even to the detriment of their overall health, including musculoskeletal issues1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5042820/ like backaches and tension. When someone is emotionally flooded, their body wants to react to a perceived threat through flight or flight4https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7007326/. In the case of stonewalling, the body opts for flight.
Some of the common emotions at the root of emotional flooding and stonewalling include:
- Shame: When someone feels “bad” about themselves, shame will provoke a response that often appears like defense or maintaining control.
- Fear: When someone fears how you might react to their feelings, they may resort to silence to keep the peace.
- Anger: When someone feels that they may have lost agency or wants to maintain their sense of autonomy and control, they often feel angry.
- Hopelessness: When someone feels it’s useless to fight, their hopelessness may lead them to resort to a victim mentality.
Special Note: Other, more serious causes for stonewalling include personality disorders like narcissism5https://dictionary.apa.org/narcissistic-personality-disorder. For example, when a narcissist is stonewalling, it is often due to their desire to regain their sense of importance and exhibit control (likely stemming from a deep sense of insecurity). In this case, stonewalling may be used as a form of emotional abuse to manipulate someone or the situation.
If this sort of stonewalling is occurring in your relationship, it’s important to seek the support of a counselor or a therapist. Please check out Mental Health America’s helpful list of options.
Let’s look at some examples of stonewalling in action in various scenarios.
Examples of Stonewalling
Stonewalling in a partner relationship
Jan is upset about her husband Mark’s unwillingness to help make dinner. Mark hates the confrontation so much that sometimes he comes home late to avoid the potential conversation around dinner time. When Jan brings it up, he dismisses the issue and says he’s been busy at work. Jan expresses that she feels like he doesn’t care.
Mark’s heart rate increases, and he becomes passive, avoiding eye contact. His jaw starts to clench. Rather than engage, it feels easier to dismiss the conversation altogether and hopes it blows over. He ignores Jan’s bid for connection and goes into the other room to turn on the tv.
Stonewalling in the workplace
Fran is frustrated by a difficult situation with another colleague at work and goes to her boss Sam to share her concern. Sam is unsure how to handle it, so he suggests that it’s probably not that bad and that she should offer a solution.
However, the situation continues, and Fran brings it up to Sam again and again. Sam continues to avoid the issue and refuses to engage, even going as far as ignoring Fran’s emails and phone calls.
Sam makes excuses that he’s been quite busy with other matters when Fran’s concerns feel more like an annoyance. Eventually, Fran becomes so frustrated that she resigns. Yet, the situation Sam wanted to avoid has now become an even bigger issue for the company.
Stonewalling in a parent/adult child relationship
Sharon likely means well, but in almost every conversation she tries to have with her son, Joe, it seems he doesn’t want to talk to her. Sharon doesn’t understand why he wouldn’t want to listen to her advice about improving his life—get a better job, pursue his master’s degree, find a girlfriend, read this book, go to that church, and become a better person.
Overwhelmed by her advice, Joe shuts down, ignores his mom’s phone calls, or, when he does talk to her, only provides short answers to avoid hurting her feelings and telling her he would rather make his own decisions.
Attention: It’s important to note that stonewalling can be both intentional and unintentional. When it is unintentional, it is usually due to an underlying coping mechanism6https://www.aapweb.com/wp-content/docs/Voices-188-2016-Summer-Whats-Love-Got-To-Do-With-It.pdf#page=82 developed in childhood to regain autonomy or keep the peace. When it is intentional, it is often a tactic used to manipulate, control, or hurt someone—intentional stonewalling is considered a form of emotional abuse.
What is the Impact of Stonewalling on a Relationship?
Left unaddressed, stonewalling can have a negative, damaging effect on your relationships. Not only does stonewalling cause physical health issues1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5042820/, but the emotional toll on you and your relationship’s well-being is also put at risk.
Relationships that have issues with stonewalling experience:
- Health issues
- Increased defensiveness
- Decreased ability to solve problems or think creatively
- Reduced empathy
- Higher chances of divorce7https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2000.00737.x
- Prolonged fighting and unresolved issues
- Increased passive aggression
7 Healthy Communication Tips to Combat Stonewalling
It can be hard to know how to respond when someone is stonewalling you. The natural response might be pushing someone to respond because the feeling of being ignored is hard to bear. On the flip side, if you’re prone to stonewalling in order to avoid difficult conversations, it can be hard to know how to process your emotions without making things worse.
Here are some tips to help, whether you’re being stonewalled or the stonewaller.
Respond with patience
If you’re being stonewalled: When someone is stonewalling you, understand that even though they may not be displaying apparent emotions, their body is reacting emotionally to the stress they feel from the perceived threat in the topic you may want to discuss.
Rather than continue to press your point, pause and consider how they might be receiving the information. Consider that the topic may trigger fear, shame, or loss of agency. Then let them know that you understand this may be a difficult or uncomfortable topic and that you want to know how they feel when they’re ready to talk.
If you’re the stonewaller: Pay attention to the reactions you’re feeling in your body. Is your jaw clenched? Is your neck stiff? Take three deep breaths.
Your brain may not be ready to process your emotions in this state of mind. Take a moment to look your partner in the eye and let them know you want to talk but also need some time to process first.
Schedule a time to talk later
In the heat of the moment, not a lot of productive conversation is likely to occur. When you feel the tension rising, let your partner know the relationship is important to you and that you want to discuss it, but it’s probably best to set some time aside later after you’ve each had time to decompress and process your feelings.
By putting it on the calendar, you help show your partner that they are a priority and that you care about them.
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Offer grace, not guilt
If you’re being stonewalled: Guilting someone into talking will rarely bring about productive conversation and often leads to deeper shame or resentment (on both sides!). A surefire way to guilt someone is to use accusatory language that shuts them down further and puts them on the defense. Instead, try using grace-filled language to approach the conversation.
- Ask yourself, Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it kind?
- If you can answer yes to all those questions, then ask, Is the timing for this conversation right? Are we both in a headspace to listen well?
If you can answer yes to those questions, consider how you can approach the conversation believing the other is doing their best. If you believe they’re doing their best, how does this change your approach to the conversation?
If you’re the stonewaller: Dealing with difficult emotions may not come naturally to you, which is why you likely resort to shutting down. When faced with these difficult emotions, it may be helpful to speak self-soothing mantras to offer yourself some grace as you process what you’re feeling.
Some mantras you could try include:
- My mistakes don’t define me.
- I can handle hard truths.
- I have nothing to be afraid of.
- I know I am loved.
As the stonewaller, it’s also important to remember to offer grace to the partner trying to connect with you. While they may be sharing their feelings in a way that is triggering to you, try to remember the person behind it. They’re likely fighting to connect with you, even if their words may feel painful.
Avoid the words “always” and “never”
Words like “always” and “never” are common guilt-inducing words that usually imply judgment. For example, saying something like “You never pay attention to me” or “I’m always cleaning up after you” are phrases that are rarely helpful and often trigger people into shutting down (stonewallers and non-stonewallers alike).
Instead of saying “always” and “never” to bring up your concerns, try using “I feel” language.
For example, another way to say the two phrases above might be:
- “I feel sad when I don’t hear from you.”
- “I feel embarrassed when the house is messy when I invite my friends over.”
Do these phrases feel more disarming? The next time you’re tempted to say “never” or “always,” stop yourself and try to rephrase with “I feel….” Chances are, you’ll be more likely to get to the root of the problem, and your partner will not feel threatened to defend themself.
Engage in active listening
Listening is key to great communication and relationships. To prevent stonewalling in your relationship, practice the art of listening. To get started, try these helpful practices:
- Ask open-ended questions or questions that go beyond a yes or no answer. “What do you think about…?”
- Re-state your understanding. “I’m understanding that ____, is that right?”
- Encourage and affirm them. “Wow. Tell me more about that.”
- Give good eye contact.
- Avoid other activities while you’re listening, like playing on your phone.
For more listening techniques, check out our article on how to talk less and listen more.
Take space to process emotions
One of the most challenging things to do in any relationship is to communicate our emotions to each other. It can be hard enough to know how we feel ourselves, let alone express what we feel to one another. When we don’t know how to communicate, we often act out our emotions in destructive ways, leading to stonewalling and deteriorating relationships.
One way to identify and process your emotions is by doing it on your own first. To do this, you can start with a journal. Use deep question prompts like shadow work prompts to dive into your deeper emotions.
Some shadow work journal prompts you might want to process include:
- Name a time when you felt rejected. What happened?
- What does being vulnerable in a relationship look like to you?
- When you’re vulnerable with someone, how does it feel? Is it safe? Is it hard? Why?
- When was the last time you felt jealous? What did you fear might happen? Why?
- When was the last time you felt resentful for something someone else had? What does your resentment reveal about what you need or want?
- What makes you feel defensive? What are you trying to protect?
Go to couple’s therapy
While the tips above may work for you, you may be at a point in your relationship where you are hitting a wall and not sure how to overcome your issues. If this is you, your next best step for your relationship may be to see a couple’s counselor or therapist.
Having an objective party who can see things from an outside perspective and offer support as you strive to communicate with each other might be one of the best things you do for yourself and your relationship.
Please check out Mental Health America’s helpful list of options. Even if your partner is unwilling to go to therapy, consider going on your own.
In summary, take note of these tips for healthy communication and fulfilling relationships:
- Respond with patience. Consider the triggers and pause.
- Schedule time to talk later. In the heat of the moment, the conversation is unproductive.
- Offer grace, not guilt. Guilt shuts people down. Grace opens people up.
- Avoid words like “always” and “never.” Try using the “I feel…” language instead.
- Engage in active listening. Listening is one of the best practices for healthy relationships.
- Take space to process your emotions. Discover how you feel through journaling.
- Go to couple’s therapy. This might be the best thing you do for your relationship!
For more ideas on how to improve your social skills, check out our article 14 Social Skills to Help You Win in Life.