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Stonewalling: Is It Ruining Your Relationship?

No relationship is without conflict. Even the healthiest relationships will have some friction from time to time. While it’s natural not to see eye-to-eye with your partner, it’s how you handle those disagreements that can determine whether it helps or harms your relationship.

When you and your partner are faced with a conflict, do you calmly hash it out or does one partner stonewall, or give the silent treatment?

While stonewalling may seem like a harmless tactic to deal with problems in your romantic relationship, it can have disastrous effects and may even be a pathway to divorce. However, there is hope for both parties.

We dive into what stonewalling is, the red flags to look out for and how to break down this wall that’s dividing your 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.

“It is a voluntary response aimed at ending a conversation or a situation that triggers emotional unrest or discomfort, resulting in an overwhelming physiologic response,” said Srinivas Dannaram, MD, a psychiatrist at Banner Thunderbird Medical Center in Glendale, AZ. “This is a state where the person stonewalling is either confused or shocked by a conversation or a set of questions.”

Oftentimes, stonewalling is quite noticeable in relationships. However, there are times when stonewalling may go unnoticed—especially if neither partner is aware of their behaviors.

How can I tell if I’m being stonewalled by my partner?

A person can stonewall in several different ways. Some of the signs of stonewalling include:

  • They walk out in the middle of a conversation without warning or explanation
  • Refusing to answer questions or refuse to talk about or give reasons not to talk about an issue
  • They dismiss your concerns
  • They engage in passive-aggressive type behavior
  • They change the subject or make accusations to avoid an issue
  • They give you the silent treatment, avoiding nonverbal communication such as making eye contact with you

What if I am stonewalling my partner?

When you’re on the receiving end of stonewalling, it may be more obvious to notice the effects their behavior has on you. But what if you’re the one refusing to cooperate? Here’s how to tell if you tend to stonewall:

  • You avoid conflicts and arguments in any possible way
  • You get very defensive when your partner addresses a concern
  • You hide your true feelings and opinions
  • You have a hard time admitting when you’re wrong

How is stonewalling different from gaslighting?

Stonewalling and gaslighting are both tactics to prevent healthy conversations and can cause a lot of pain, but the intent behind them is quite different.

“Stonewalling is actually a learned defense mechanism that might stem from an unpleasant emotional or physical reaction someone has experienced in the past. Or your partner may simply not be able to express how they feel so instead they shut down,” Dr. Dannaram said. “Gaslighting, on the other hand, is a deliberate effort to manipulate and hurt others. It’s an intentional form of emotional abuse.”

[Check out “Signs You Might be a Victim of Gaslighting” to learn what to look for.]

What are the negative effects of stonewalling on relationships?

The effects of stonewalling are disastrous for not only the receiver but also the partner who’s stonewalling.

For the person being stonewalled, it can leave them feeling confused, hurt and angry. It can wear down on their self-esteem, leading them to feel worthless or hopeless.

For the person stonewalling, they also suffer as they are denying themselves emotional intimacy with their partner.

For the couple, stonewalling can build a giant divide in their relationship, causing severe marital distress, conflict and disruption.

How do you deal with stonewalling in your relationship?

If stonewalling is occurring in your relationship, the best thing to do is to face it head-on as a couple and not bury your heads in the sand. To make your relationship work, you need to work together. To do this, you’ll both need to learn how to communicate more effectively. This situation is one where couples counseling can help.

“Whether you or your loved one is stonewalling, if frequent episodes lead to escalated misunderstandings and miscommunication that affects trust in your relationship, then professional help can help assess and address those communication issues,” Dr. Dannaram said.

Getting couples therapy can help you learn healthy ways to communicate and may help to strengthen your relationship as a whole.

If you need some relationship guidance, you can find a Banner behavioral health specialist at bannerhealth.com.

Final word

Don’t forget that no matter how important your partner is to you and how much you love them, your relationship is never immune to conflicts. When handled appropriately and respectively, differences in your relationship can help you and your relationship grow.

For more relationship articles, check out:

Relationships Behavioral Health