How to Deal With Stonewalling

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Updated on August 6, 2021

Over time, conflict is inevitable in close, romantic relationships. How you choose to respond to these conflicts will determine whether they bring you closer together or pull you apart. While the obvious preferred way to handle discord would be to practice healthy communication skills and respectfully work out issues, emotions often get the better of people and impact their ability to access these skills. Many people struggle significantly with managing their emotions and their ability to communicate in an argument, and as a result, develop patterns of damaging responses to conflict that can ultimately harm a relationship.[1]

unhappy couple

What is Stonewalling?

One particularly problematic strategy for handling conflict is the act of stonewalling. As the name suggests, stonewalling is when someone actively avoids communicating with their partner to sort out a problem. This can make it seem like the partner is disinterested in what the other person has to say and is invalidating their feelings about the conflict.

People who engage in stonewalling often dismiss their partner’s statements, criticize them, or appear defensive to end a conversation in order to avoid conflict. They may engage in nonverbal behavior which indicates that they aren’t listening, like engaging in other activities while their partner is trying to speak to them, not looking at them, or rolling their eyes.

Why Do People Stonewall?

There are lots of reasons for why someone may engage in stonewalling as a go-to conflict tactic, and it is usually a result of how they were raised to handle conflict when they were young. If they lived in a house where their parents made them feel guilty or ashamed, they may have developed stonewalling as a way to avoid feeling those feelings in other relationships as an adult.[2]

Stonewalling is a defensive response that people engage in so they don’t have to feel negative emotions. While no one likes negative feelings, some people have particular aversions to experiencing them, and have learned to avoid the possibility of feeling blamed or at fault by not engaging in any conflict directly. The problem with this is that it ends up fueling the conflict’s fire rather than putting it out.

What Is the Effect of Being Stonewalled?

Stonewalling tactics can make the other person in the relationship feel increasingly desperate to be heard and understood. The lack of response or validation from their partner can increase their anxiety and frustration, only making the argument worse.

Stonewalling can also make the other other person feel belittled and disrespected, so while the stonewalling partner may be doing so in an effort to minimize their own negative feelings, it is actually creating deeper negative emotions in their partner. As a result, the other partner may begin to develop more dramatic ways to get their attention and initiate conversation, thus increasing the avoidance from the other partner. Research has shown that stonewalling can also have negative physical affects, such as musculoskeletal pain, in long-term marriages.[3]

How to Put an End to Stonewalling in a Relationship

If you notice that your partner stonewalls you, or if you suspect that you may be unknowingly stonewalling your partner, there are some strategies than can help with improving the flow of communication:

Recognize Stonewalling When It’s Happening

The first step to handling stonewalling is to recognize it and the impact it is having on your relationship. If both of you understand that this behavior is damaging, you can actively identify the behaviors as they are happening and try to address them.

Using “I” Statements Instead of Criticizing

People will avoid conflict and be less interested in working out problems if they feel that their partner always begins conflict by blaming them for every one of their relationship issues. Using “I” statements or describing your own personal feelings before discussing your partner’s behavior can help them to “lean in” to the conversation rather than avoiding it.

Practicing Coping Skills to Regulate Feelings

The way you deliver messages about your feelings will shape the way your partner responds. It is important for you to be fully aware of your feelings in the moment, and if they are too intense to express in a calm manner, you may need to step away. Taking a moment to use coping skills to calm down (deep breathing, tensing and relaxing muscles, mindfulness techniques, etc.) can help you send the right message when you’re upset.

Similarly, if you are the one stonewalling your partner, taking a break from a conversation to become ready to communicate can help to deescalate a conflict more effectively than ignoring or avoiding it.

Moving Forward

Once the aforementioned techniques have been put to use and both partners are on board with repairing their relationship, they may still find it difficult to communicate effectively without getting into an unproductive argument. That’s when it may be time to consider bringing in a third party.

Professional counselors are skilled at helping people handle their maladaptive tendencies in relationships. They can help the stonewalling partner and the stonewalled partner to engage in healthy communication and work through some of the more conflict-ridden instincts the partner is having. Bringing in a licensed therapist as a neutral party to help work through they conflict can often make it easier to manage.


References

  1. 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. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1545-5300.2009.01300.x
  2. Hosokawa, R., & Katsura, T. (2019). Exposure to marital conflict: Gender differences in internalizing and externalizing problems among children. PloS one, 14(9), e0222021. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0222021
  3. Haase, C. M., Holley, S. R., Bloch, L., Verstaen, A., & Levenson, R. W. (2016). Interpersonal emotional behaviors and physical health: A 20-year longitudinal study of long-term married couples. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 16(7), 965–977. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0040239
  4. Carroll, J. S., Nelson, D. A., Yorgason, J. B., Harper, J. M., Ashton, R. H., & Jensen, A. C. (2010). Relational aggression in marriage. Aggressive behavior, 36(5), 315–329. https://doi.org/10.1002/ab.20349
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Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events