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In an ideal world, when your partner’s attitude or behavior shifts, they are willing and able to identify and communicate why. But if your partner has ever shut down completely, avoided your texts for an extended period of time, or went silent when you brought up a certain subject—unable and unwilling to explain why—they could be stonewalling. Sometimes no amount of prodding can get them to open up, and it can feel like you’re talking to a stone wall, unable to break through.
When this happens, you might find yourself spiraling internally—questioning your last moves, wondering if you missed anything, and coming up with a million made-up reasons as to why they could be acting differently. Stonewalling can lead to understandable frustration and confusion, and not only is it incredibly hurtful, but it can also be really detrimental to a relationship.
So detrimental, in fact, that Dr. John Gottman of the The Gottman Institute calls stonewalling the last of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalpyse,” the four communication patterns that can lead to the end of a relationship. (The first three are criticism, contempt, and defensiveness.)
“Stonewalling is not talking to someone, giving someone the silent treatment, or even just not talking about a certain subject to avoid confrontation,” explains mental health counselor Chelsie Reed, PhD, LPC, author of Sexpert: Desire, Passion, Sensations, Intimacy, and Orgasm to Indulge in Your Best Sex Life.
But stonewalling can also be a manipulation tactic, says LA-based psychologist Carder Stout, PhD, author of the forthcoming book We Are All Addicts: The Soul’s Guide to Kicking Your Compulsions. “Stonewalling [...] is often an unhealthy, convoluted attempt to see how much your partner cares about you,” says Stout. “Do they keep texting even though I'm not responding? Are they getting annoyed, jealous, suspicious, anxious? Stonewalling [can be] used to evoke an emotional response from your partner to see how interested they are in you.”
If you haven’t caught on already, stonewalling is a negative communication pattern, and according to The Gottman Institute, it can quickly turn into a habit. Here’s everything you need to know about stonewalling, including how to handle it if it ever comes up in your relationship.
What Is Stonewalling and Why Do People Do It?
If your partner is stonewalling during an argument, it can feel exactly like talking to a stone wall, says clinical sexologist Ava Cadell, PhD, an AASECT certified sex counselor. There’s no movement forward, nothing you say gets through to them, and it can be difficult to find a solution. It’s not a healthy form of communication because it’s an entire lack of communication, and can include a lot of spite and hate on both sides with no real resolve toward the issue.
According to The Gottman Institute, it can often be a response to feeling physiologically flooded, and people who stonewall might not be in the physiological state to discuss things rationally. It’s can also be a response to contempt (one of the aforementioned “Four Horsemen”), a communication pattern in which couples treat each other with disrespect that includes mocking, ridicule, sarcasm, and negative body language like eye-rolling or scoffing. This means their response, albeit not helpful and incredibly frustrating, could be a response to your communication habits as well.
There is no one-size-fits-all reason why people stonewall, and Reed says it can take several different forms. Your partner might not want to talk “until they have time to think about the issue, so that’s more of a pause, but it can still feel hurtful,” she says. There’s nothing wrong with taking a break to compose yourself and then re-visiting the issue once both parties feel ready, but that needs to be clearly communicated.
If your partner handles conflict by going silent and refusing to talk about it, it’s possible they might not have the skills necessary to communicate their feelings, or just aren't in the right headspace to do so. If that's the case, the person stonewalling might not be doing it maliciously, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t frustrating to the person on the receiving end.
“Stonewalling can [also] happen when the person feels there is no hope for change and thus will not talk about the issue,” says Reed. “[They feel] that ignoring it can let it subside and allow time to pass and for a ‘normal’ to resume eventually.”
If someone doesn’t see a solution to whatever conflict you’re facing together, they would, ideally, communicate that to you and be willing to work on finding a friendly middle term. But ignoring the issue altogether and hoping it’ll just go away doesn’t proactively contribute to a solution.
Cadell says that stonewalling could also look like your partner “giving you the silent treatment, calling you names, threatening the relationship, creating power struggles by diminishing you, placing blame on you, or even walking out without telling you why or where they’re going.”
Again, stonewalling can be incredibly frustrating, and you might not totally understand the reasons why your partner stonewalls, but every relationship is different, and there are ways to work through it.
How to Deal With a Partner Who Stonewalls
If your partner ices you out or makes you feel bad about a conflict, you should feel comfortable enough to bring it up so you can talk it out. If you don’t feel comfortable bringing it up, it’s worth checking in with yourself to ask yourself why, and what the best solution might be in order to do what’s best for you. Is it talking to a therapist? Is it asking your partner to go to to couples therapy with you? Is it walking away altogether? Only you can determine what your needs really are.
Cadell suggests trying out a “safe word” when one person feels that the other is stonewalling. “When one of you says the safe word, you stop it before it gets out of control and you say something you might regret,” says Cadell.
According to The Gottman Institute, another way to deal with stonewalling as its happening is to take a 20-minute break from the conversation, do something alone (like go for a walk or something that can help clear your heads), and then return to the conversation when you feel ready. (Again, a break is good, but you and your partner need to clearly communicate that you're taking one. Walking away without an explanation is the opposite of taking a healthy break.)
You can’t force a stonewalling partner to talk to you, just like you can’t force anyone to do anything. But you can control how you respond, both as it’s happening and in the long-term. Don’t forget that in doing this, it’s important to think about and honor your own needs, too.
Can a Relationship Experiencing Stonewalling be Saved?
It’s possible! Like any relationship issue, stonewalling doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker if both partners are willing to acknowledge that what they’re doing is unhelpful, identify unhealthy communication patterns, and do what it takes to rectify the behavior in a way that works long-term, but this can take time and practice. It's a two-way street—perhaps there’s something you’re doing that makes your partner feel like they have to stonewall, or perhaps it’s a more deep-seated issue your partner needs to work through with a professional on their own.
Ultimately, stonewalling is a complex issue that doesn’t have an overnight fix. The other three “Horsemen” communication styles could also be at play by both or either party, so it might be worth working with a therapist to identify where your communication habits falter and how to get them on the right track.
For a relationship to succeed, both parties need to learn to work through conflict in a healthy way that works for everyone. You and your partner both deserve the peace of mind that comes with that, and if you want to work on finding it together, a professional can help.
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