What is Stonewalling and How Do You Deal With It?

July 15, 2019
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Conflict is inevitable in close relationships; whether the relationship is with a spouse or romantic partner, a parent, or a friend, the longer the relationship, the more opportunities for disagreement. There are many ways that people can handle conflict with the ones they love, and depending on the way a person chooses to handle it can have a significant impact on the relationship itself. While the obvious preferred way to handle conflict in close relationships would be to practice healthy communication skills and respectfully work out the disagreement, 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.

One particular problematic strategy for handling conflict is the act of stonewalling. When a person stonewalls the person they are in a relationship with, they actively avoid communicating to sort out a problem. This can look like the partner is disinterested in what the other person is saying, minimizing their feelings about the conflict, or even sitting totally unresponsive when the other person is trying to incite communication. People who engage in stonewalling often dismiss their partner’s statements, criticize them, or appear defensive to end a conversation to avoid conflict. They may engage in nonverbal behavior that 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 more negative non-verbals like eye rolling. These tactics can make the other person in the relationship feel increasingly desperate to be heard and understood and the lack of response or validation from the other person can increase their anxiety and/or frustration, only making the argument worse.

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There are lots of reasons for why someone may engage in stonewalling as a go-to conflict tactic, and it usually is a result of how they were raised to handle conflict when they were young. If they lived in a house where their parents used their own emotions to make them feel guilty or shamed, they may have developed stonewalling as a way to avoid feeling those feelings in other relationships as an adult. Stonewalling is a defensive response that people engage in so they don’t have to feel negative feelings. While no one likes feeling negative feelings, some people have particular aversions to experiencing any form of negative feelings 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 this ends up fueling the conflict’s fire rather than putting it out.

Stonewalling can make another 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 creating deeper negative feelings in their partner. As a result, the other partner may begin to develop more dramatic ways to get attention and initiate a conversation, thus increasing the avoidance from the other partner. If you notice that your partner stonewalls you, or if you notice you may be stonewalling your partner, here are some strategies for how to handle it:

  • 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 something. 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.
    • From the stonewalling side, “I” statements can also help a person who tries to avoid conflict to remain engaged and express their feelings, even if they need to use an “I” statement to express that they are feeling defensive or avoidant at the moment.
  • Understand and recognize stonewalling when it’s happening.
    • The first step to handling stonewalling is by knowing what it is and the impact it has on relationships. If both parties understand that this behavior isn’t healthy for their relationship, they can actively notice the tendencies to stonewall as it’s happening and try to address it.
  • Recognizing your feelings in the moment and practicing coping skills to regulate them.
    • 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 your feelings are too intense to respond 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 your tendency is to stonewall 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.
  • Get help from a professional.
    • Mental health professionals are skilled at helping partners handle their maladaptive tendencies in relationships and communication. 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. Having a neutral party there to help people work through their conflict can often make it easier to manage.

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
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