by Gideon 

November 6, 2021

how to deal with stonewalling in a relationship

This post looks at how to deal with stonewalling in a relationship, specifically with the two simple steps of disengagement and re-engagement.

Have you ever been involved in a heated dispute with your spouse that simply seemed to get worse and worse?

Everything that is said seems to be the same thing over and over again, which is frustrating.

And then the dispute grows to the point where one person fully withdraws, thereby forcing the other partner away from the conversation.

It’s as though a stone wall has been constructed in order to solve the situation.

However, despite this, you and your partner are left feeling more alone or resentful than ever before.

This tendency is frequently referred to as “stonewalling,” a concept used to describe the act of retreating from a conflict situation and is a long-term unwillingness to communicate one’s thoughts or feelings.

Defining Stonewalling

In its most basic form, stonewalling is a form of stress management that occurs when a person feels emotionally overwhelmed.

Instead of dealing with the problem, they shut down totally, creating a barrier between themselves and their relationship.

Stonewalling may occur as a result of the person’s inability to deal with a disagreement or their own feelings.

It may manifest itself in the form of silent treatment, refusal to interact with their partner, or simply withdrawing from the debate totally, depending on the situation.

To his credit, Dr John Gottman, a psychologist and expert on marriage and family relationships, was the first to refer to stonewalling in the context of a romantic relationship.

He considers it to be one of the four most important predictors of divorce in marriage, along with infidelity and adultery (the other three being contempt, criticism, and defensiveness).

“Stonewalling is the emotional equivalent of cutting off someone’s oxygen,”

Jeff Pipe

says psychologist Jeff Pipe, in perhaps the most graphic definition of the concept.

According to Dr Gottman, males are more likely than females to engage in stonewalling in a relationship. The majority of those who stonewall are men, in fact, 85%.

Those findings are in keeping with brain research, which has revealed that female brains seem to be more developed in areas connected to emotions, interaction, and interpersonal skills, whereas men generally seem to be more developed in areas related to analytical thinking and cognitive reasoning.

how to deal with stonewalling in a relationship

The majority of the time when someone stonewalls, they are attempting to avoid conflict or to calm themselves down (this is referred to as self-soothing) while in the middle of a highly stressful circumstance (also referred to in psychology as “flooding”).

They may believe that they are unable to cope with their emotions and, as a result, they may shut down or withdraw in order to avoid suffering discomfort or incompetence.

Possible causes of stonewalling

There are a variety of reasons why people stonewall in disputes.

At its core, stonewalling is a behaviour that is frequently motivated by feelings of dread, anxiety, and displeasure.

Stonewalling is often a behaviour that people learn as children and use throughout their lives.

It’s possible that their parents engaged in this activity in order to “maintain the peace” or to acquire supremacy in the family hierarchy.

However, even if the stonewalling appears to be deliberate and hostile, it is frequently utilised by persons who feel powerless or who have a low sense of personal worth.

Therefore, stonewalling may be utilised as a defensive tactic to compensate for emotions of powerlessness or worthlessness experienced in a relationship situation.

Therefore, couples may resort to stonewalling in their relationships, particularly during times of conflict, for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to:

  • Attempting to avoid conflict at all costs.
  • A technique for bringing a problem to a head, either to include greater grievances in the conflict or to bring an end to a relationship.
  • They are unable to articulate their emotions properly.
  • They are worried about their partner’s reaction or about where a conversation might go.
  • To establish themselves as neutral on the subject; to perceive their partner as “emotional” or “unreasonable.”
  • A method of influencing a situation in order to get one’s desired outcome.
  • As a defensive mechanism, the desire to avoid conflict is expressed.
  • Trying to maintain control of the situation or punishing their partner are both valid reasons.
  • Genuinely believing that they “cannot deal with” a particular subject or situation.
  • Having a genuine belief that settling the problem is impossible.
  • Inherent despair that a solution will not be discovered.
  • Wishing to relieve tension in a highly intense emotional moment.
  • Their partner does not appear to be interested in resolving the problem.
how to deal with stonewalling in a relationship

Whatever the underlying causes of stonewalling, it’s vital to understand that stonewalling is not defined by a lack of verbal communication, but rather by an emotional disconnection.

Because one person has fully withdrawn themselves from the issue emotionally, their body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions become and remain blank and expressionless when difficult conversations happen.

In the end, there are a variety of reasons why some couples engage in stonewalling in their relationships, but in general, because stonewalling demonstrates a refusal to resolve key issues, it can be detrimental to a relationship over time.

Failure to meet your spouse halfway and be receptive to resolving current issues or meeting their most pressing needs does not bode well for the health and durability of your marriage.

When it comes to this situation, choosing not to do something (i.e., engage) is the same as deciding to do something (i.e., disengage and withdraw).

Telltale signs of stonewalling

Oftentimes, in a relationship, stonewalling is plainly visible.

However, stonewalling can also be subtle, and you or your spouse may not even be aware that one or both of you are engaging in stonewalling.

The following are examples of possible stonewalling:

  • Using contemptuous body language such as eye-rolling
  • Making allegations rather than discussing the current situation
  • Changing the subject in order to escape an uncomfortable subject
  • Actively avoiding the discussion of a subject by engaging in passive-aggressive conduct such as stalling or procrastinating
  • Storming out of the room without saying anything
  • Questions are not being answered.
  • Ignoring what others say
  • Inventing reasons not to enagge in conversation
  • Never acknowledging or apologising for their stonewalling actions

How stonewalling can be detrimental to a relationship

Remember that stonewalling fundamentally indicates an unwillingness to resolve difficulties that are critical to the continuation of a couple’s connection, and this can have a variety of negative consequences for the quality, experience, and long-term viability of the relationship.

Here are only seven (7) examples of how stonewalling can have an adverse influence on a relationship:

Physiological effects

It has been demonstrated in some research that stonewalling behaviour can have a direct physiological influence on couples.

156 couples were observed over the course of 20 years in a study published in 2016, which revealed that stonewalling was connected with acute musculoskeletal complaints such as backaches, neck stiffness, as well as generalised muscular pains.

4 Cardiovascular symptoms such as elevated blood pressure, tension headaches, and high heart rate, on the other hand, were more common in the partner who stonewalled.

Causes the other spouse to feel abandoned or unwanted by the other partner

Someone who is being stonewalled by their partner would feel entirely helpless and unable to connect with their SO if one partner says to the other, “Do whatever you want” or “Just leave me alone.”

That can easily lead to the belief that they are no longer respected and that their partner is unconcerned about their feelings.

how to deal with stonewalling in a relationship

When men stonewall, it is frequently because they believe the woman is “nagging.”

However, from the woman’s point of view, she feels that her voice is just not being heard.

Regardless of why couples stonewall, though, the emotional disconnect it creates can easily cause the other spouse to feel abandoned or unwanted in the relationship which WILL destroy it in the long run.

Both spouses report lower levels of happiness with their relationship

Leading on from the previous point, according to research, stonewalling in a relationship can be extremely harmful to the long-term health of the partnership.

Relationships are built on the ability to collaborate and come up with mutually beneficial solutions to difficulties, but stonewalling makes it difficult for a couple to work together to overcome any concerns.

Partners who employ stonewalling to deflect their focus away from problems wind up causing even more problems in the long run, according to research.

Because stonewalling inhibits couples from being able to resolve issues, it has the potential to cause minor arguments to spiral out of control.

When faced with stonewalling, a victim may react in a frantic manner, saying everything and everything they can think of in order to persuade the stonewalling to stop.

As a result of this acute frustration, it is possible that more violent confrontations would erupt than would have otherwise occurred.

This means that it is not only the stonewalling itself that causes problems but also the reactions that occur as a result of the stonewalling as a whole.

Lowers intimacy

Naturally, you will find it difficult to feel intimate with someone when you are attempting to act as if you are not present.

In most cases, couples who utilise stonewalling have issues that accumulate and snowball into something far larger than the sum of their separate issues.

As a result, communication between lovers is suppressed, and it becomes very hard to have healthy intimacy when communication is absent.

If you want healthy levels of intimacy in a relationship, problems must be addressed and resolved, no matter how difficult it may be to confront them.

The alternative doesn’t predict anything good for the future of any love relationship.

Increases the likelihood of developing depression and anxiety

Stonewalling in marriage has been connected to depression, a decreased degree of social competence, physical health problems, and poor academic achievement in children who live in the household, according to research.

Additionally, partners who are frequently subjected to silent treatment experience excessive worry, fear, and a sense of self-doubt.

This makes sense because relationships are essentially built on the ability to collaborate and come up with mutually beneficial solutions to difficulties, but stonewalling makes it difficult for a couple to work together to overcome any pressing concerns.

how to deal with stonewalling in a relationship

In that sense, stonewalling becomes detrimental to the marital connection, is also detrimental to the physical health of each individual partner, and affects the family unit as a whole (when kids are involved).

Increases the use and abuse of alcohol and drugs

In addition, those who utilise inefficient coping techniques for their stress, such as stonewalling, are more likely to engage in substance misuse as a means of dealing with the problems in their lives that they are unable to handle.

Consequently, individuals who were not taught good coping skills as children may find themselves instinctively resorting to inefficient means of coping as they grow older.

It is inevitable that their lives would stay unsatisfying as long as they continue to resort back to their previous methods of dealing with adversity.

There is a greater probability of the relationship failing

If one partner refuses to communicate, despite the other’s best attempts, it’s conceivable the stonewaller is hiding something.

Whether an extramarital affair, a crime, or something else, the disengagement from the marriage may be a sign of dissatisfaction.

Otherwise, all relationships must be a two-way street, no matter how difficult the situation may appear to be.

The partnership will not endure if one partner withdraws.

Stonewalling is frequently the first indicator of a failing marriage.

Now, I’m assuming you agree that all of these possible concerns are quite serious.

As a result, the question now becomes, how can a relationship overcome stonewalling?

How to deal with Stonewalling in a relationship

To answer this question, based on what we know about stonewalling, I would suggest two specific and simple steps:

  1. disengagement (or withdrawal)
  2. re-engagement

The key to coping with stonewalling is to step away from the issue when there is too much arousal, do something completely unrelated to it (i.e., disengage), and then return to the topic once everyone has calmed down (i.e., re-engage).

I’ve previously written extensively about “taking a break” and why it’s necessary, so we’ll just touch on the concept here.

Disengage

When you sense yourself wanting to stonewall during the conflict, rather choose to disengage or withdraw.

Now, this is not to be confused with stonewalling.

Disengagement is highly concerned with staying connected and resolving issues, but it is also aware that excessive emotional arousal (for example, becoming worked up or upset) will prevent this from occurring, and that you will need a break to regain your composure before re-engaging.

Stonewalling however looks to avoid completely.

According to The Gottman Institute’s research, couples who took a 30-minute break during an argument returned to the discussion with lower heart rates, which simplifies relationship conflict resolution.

When you and your partner dispute, one of you (or both of you) may begin to feel overwhelmed.

This will almost certainly result in heightened arousal, with your heart beating quicker, the blood supply to your organs slowing, and adrenaline surging.

You effectively enter a “fight or flight” psychophysiological state.

Communication and problem solving become more challenging as a result.

During a fight, it may be advantageous to take a break.

But how should you go about taking a break?

How can you take the most efficient break throughout the conversation?

To begin, it is vital that you and your partner become aware of how your physiology affects your communication and use it as a guide.

Second, you must cultivate the skill to self-soothe, as this promotes empathy, optimism, and creativity, as well as enhanced problem-solving.

Emotional self-regulation is discussed in psychology, and it is one of the most important skills you can master as a family or couple.

Practically speaking, you might begin by agreeing with your spouse that whenever either of you is no longer able to be fully present in a conversation in a productive manner, you must notify the other immediately of this fact.

As a cue, you can utilise something as simple as a phrase or a gesture.

Then aim to distract yourself for at least 20 minutes.

During that time, pursue an activity that takes you entirely away from the debate, allowing you to de-escalate the situation and regain your composure.

More importantly, however, is to focus on breathing during this time.

Take a few deep breaths to re-centre your body. You can definitely use exercise or any type of movement to help with this.

Exercises such as lifting weights can naturally accelerate your breathing and, as a natural result, will assist you in self-soothing.

how to deal with stonewalling in a relationship

Whatever you decide to do, remember to bring yourself back to the present now by focusing on your breath. It is not the appropriate moment to ruminate on what has just been discussed or to brainstorm better things to say next time around.

Some experts even believe that taking a break to collect your thoughts and sharpen your arguments is often counter-productive.

Some believe that if a person takes a timeout to ruminate during a conversation, the severity of any negative feelings encountered throughout the conversation will be multiplied by 2.

These feelings can also be transferred to your partner, making them feel as sensitive and negative, so making the entire experience useless and likely leading to even worse consequences.

A much more productive approach is to re-examine the conversation from your spouse’s perspective.

Re-examine the conflict in order to understand your partner’s perspective and where they’re coming from.

Avoid blaming them and instead attempt to understand and appreciate your partner’s point of view about the whole situation.

That obviously doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, but refusal to understand and accept will only increase and prolong frustration and conflict.

Doing that will help you be more empathetic to them and potentially cause you to see something you haven’t thought of before.

Moreover, adopting this type of open attitude will help you approach the conversation much more positively when you re-engage.

Re-engage

When requesting a break, agree on a future time to reconnect.

Making a commitment to return to the conversation at a later time is a critical component of the overall process of combating stonewalling.

When I worked with couples in the past and we discussed the idea of disengagement as a strategy for more effectively resolving conflict, many were concerned that it could lead to a situation where nothing got resolved.

There was concern that one partner might decide to withdraw but never return, always leaving things unresolved.

Disengagement, on the other hand, is only one stage of the process.

The second stage is re-engagement.

You’re essentially stonewalling if you always just disengage but never commit to re-engaging at a later time with the goal of resolving whatever issues are on the table.

Disengagement is a strategy for dealing with psychological flooding so that you can take the time you need to self-soothe, collect your thoughts, reflect on your partner’s point of view, and return to the table with the intention of being fully present and hopefully resolving the issues at hand.

It is now up to you as a couple to figure out how to do this.

It is, however, critical that you discuss this beforehand and devise a strategy that works for both of you.

how to deal with stonewalling in a relationship

The more certain a couple is about what to do when a conversation becomes heated, the more confident they feel that things will be resolved regardless of how long it takes.

Disengagement may occur several times, but as long as you reengage after each disengagement due to psychological and emotional flooding, you should be fine.

The idea is that each time you return to the table, you will hopefully make a little bit more progress, no matter how many times you have to return to the table.

If you continue to have tension at that point, request another break.

However, when you do return to the table, it’s critical that you approach it correctly.

A simple rule of thumb is to be curious and ask clarifying questions in order to gain a new perspective on your spouse’s and your own perspectives.

Disengagement will hopefully allow you to regain your composure and energy so that you can revisit the conversation with tenderness, patience, and understanding.

I also understand that taking a break from the argument may appear counter-productive; however, remember that pausing a conflict may help both partners regain their composure in order to return to it productively.

You may believe that pushing through difficult emotions is a better strategy, but consider how effective that has ever been in any argument.

When we are angry or upset about something, whether we yell and scream or internalise it and say nothing, the result is almost always the same – we stop being present, we stop paying attention, and we go on the defensive.

So, while it may appear that you are making progress because you are remaining in the conflict, the reality is that you are not.

You’re most likely exacerbating the situation.

When you use this strategy for a long enough period of time, one or both of you will resort to stonewalling to avoid conflict.

Once that occurs, it is clear what the end result will be, according to the research.

Also bear in mind that conflict is a natural component of any relationship, romantic or not.

Even the happiest couples have conflict.

At the end of the day, what separates the happiest relationships from the rest is how the partners resolve conflict and mend their relationship after the conflict, not the absence of conflict.

Additionally, it is critical to distinguish boundary setting from stonewalling.

The former entails cooperation and communication, whereas stonewalling aims to avoid or disconnect.

Final thoughts

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been stonewalled at some point in your relationship, or you’re currently being stonewalled.

When dealing with stonewalling in a relationship, keep in mind that stonewalling fundamentally indicates an unwillingness to resolve issues that are critical to the continuation of a couple’s relationship.

As a result, it is critical for partners to understand this issue and implement the necessary strategies in order to deal with it effectively.

Furthermore, while the strategies outlined here are intended to help you deal with stonewalling, it’s worth noting that they can also be used to deal with other types of emotionally challenging behaviours.

Thus,  I can only hope that the strategies we’ve discussed here have been of some assistance to you.

Please feel free to share this blog with others who may be interested or in need of it.

About the author 

Gideon

Gideon is the founder of TheRelationshipGuy.com, a top-50 relationship blog (2021) and top-100 marriage blog (2021) focused on providing healthy relationship advice about love and life. He earned a Master's degree in theological studies before training as a professional counsellor and hypnotherapist (DipProfCouns., DipMSHT.) almost 10 years ago. He is currently pursuing further graduate Psychology studies at Massey University while working as a relationship and dating blogger the majority of the time. He has been married to his wife for over fifteen years and is the father of two children.

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