What To Know About Stonewalling In A Relationship

Relationships aren't easy; arguments and rough patches are normal. In fact, the healthiest couples have them, and getting through issues together can help a couple grow together. However, there is a right way and a wrong way to conduct arguments or problem-solve. Unhealthy argument styles can include blaming the other partner, accusing them of whatever you're angry about, or just flat-out thinking you hate your partner. Bad habits like these in tense conversations can ruin a relationship.

The key to any argument — and any relationship — is open and honest communication, even if what you have to say might be hard for the other person to hear. One of the best ways to conduct a conversation is to come to the table with kindness and a willingness to listen. However, a dire relationship habit called stonewalling is one of the worst actions you can do to your partner, even if it seems like a good way to diffuse a situation.

What is stonewalling?

Stonewalling is when a psychological and hypothetical "wall" comes between you and your partner. This often occurs during an argument when emotions are high. "Stonewalling is not talking to someone, giving someone the silent treatment, or even just not talking about a certain subject to avoid confrontation," Chelsie Reed, Ph.D., a mental health counselor and author, tells Cosmopolitan. The listener who's stonewalling can withdraw or shut down, which leads to a closed connection with their partner, who's talking. Healthline reported that this can obviously show up as the silent treatment or cold shoulder. Oftentimes, the stonewaller will busy themselves by checking their phone or saying a phrase to divert the conversation like, "Do whatever you want," or "I'm done." 

Of course, there are repercussions to stonewalling in addition to leading to a failed relationship. "Partners who are stonewalled often feel demeaned or abused. They may even begin to question their own self-worth," psychotherapist Marni Feuerman writes for Verywell Mind. If someone stonewalls to diffuse a situation, oftentimes it escalates even more. Feuerman also noted a study that suggests it can even cause health issues. The stonewaller can develop internal pain such as backaches, stiff necks, and muscle aches. The person who is being stonewalled can develop cardiovascular issues like "increased blood pressure, tension headaches, and rapid heart rate."

Why do partners stonewall?

People stonewall for multiple reasons. According to The Gottman Institute, the first is that the listener is "feeling overwhelmed or physiologically flooded." What's more, psychotherapist Marni Feuerman writes for Verywell Mind that it's easy to assume your partner stonewalls on purpose or with bad intentions. While it's possible — Carder Stout, Ph.D., a psychologist and author, tells Cosmopolitan that stonewalling could be a manipulation tactic to see how much a partner "cares" that they're ignored — that's not commonly the case. "At its very heart, stonewalling is often a behavior born out of fear, anxiety, and frustration," Feuerman explains. It could be a trauma response due to a toxic or dangerous past. "Stonewalling is oftentimes a tactic learned during childhood," Feuerman adds. "It may have been a behavior their parents used to 'keep the peace' or to gain dominance in the family hierarchy."

A partner could think they're doing the right thing and maybe intend to just diffuse the situation by checking out until both sides cool down. However, it's important to remember that your partner can't read your mind and it's still stonewalling if that intention isn't communicated to them. It's normal to want to take a pause from an argument or tense conversation for composure or to collect your thoughts and create a response. But the partner that needs to do this has to explain that's what is happening clearly, Chelsie Reed tells Cosmopolitan, not just disappear or walk away from the situation.

Stonewalling can lead to the end of a relationship

If it wasn't obvious, stonewalling is detrimental to a relationship. It's the last of the Four Horseman of a relationship, according to The Gottman Institute. Just like those of the apocalypse, the four actions — criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling — signal the end of a relationship. The institute explains that, usually, the first three "horsemen" of a romance apocalypse have to create a negative enough environment before a partner resorts to stonewalling. But it's not do-or-die; if both partners are committed to making a relationship work, stonewalling can be squashed.

The Gottman Institute gives a simple, yet not always easy, solution of just stopping. They recommend potentially taking a moment to collect yourself because high emotions and tense physical responses that lead to stonewalling can also make it hard to hold a productive conversation. However, as stated before, that collection time needs to be clearly communicated to stop the cycle of stonewalling. They even suggest creating a safe word, phrase, or motion for this need for composure to streamline the process when it happens. Then the couple can come back together when emotions aren't as high and try to figure out a solution to their issues. Brides also suggests finding the root of the problem and maybe involving a relationship therapist too. And the most helpful reminder is to always come to problems with kindness for yourself and your partner.