Are You Or Your Partner Stonewalling?

Occasional arguments are a normal and even healthy part of any relationship, but it's when they remain unresolved or become hurtful to either you or your partner that your relationship might be in trouble

Picture this: You're in the middle of an argument where you're communicating to your partner about something that has caused you distress and they suddenly disengage from the conversation and you. You're left feeling frustrated, hurt, and confused. Your partner, on the other hand, is feeling overwhelmed, angry, and equally frustrated, but they've stopped communicating or only give you one-word answers that don't tell you how they're actually feeling. 

What is happening in this scenario is referred to as stonewalling. In its most basic sense, you can infer the meaning of the word by the very way in which the word is structured. Your partner has erected an "emotional wall" (via CNet) — a stone wall — between themself and you, and they're refusing to respond to you anymore. While initially, this might seem like not a big deal, stonewalling can do serious damage to the relationship and the intimacy you and your partner share.

So, how do you spot stonewalling in a relationship and why does it happen? Here's what you need to know about stonewalling and whether you or your partner might be guilty of it. 

Signs you or your partner are stonewalling and the reason behind it

Do either of you go quiet in the middle of an argument or conversation? Do you pretend not to listen or walk away? Do you or your partner avoid eye contact or pick up another activity in the middle of a disagreement? Do either of you use one-word answers as responses? These are all signs of stonewalling in a relationship, per Betterhelp. Giving the silent treatment and being dismissive or defensive are also stonewalling behaviors to watch out for.

Understanding the reason behind stonewalling is an important step in navigating the problem. Therapist Doug Roest-Gyimah tells Brides that stonewalling is "often a survival mechanism of sorts. It is sometimes from one's childhood and family and other times, it is learned in adult relationships." It happens for a variety of reasons. For instance, you could be having trouble expressing your emotions, or perhaps you're feeling overwhelmed. It's also possible that you're scared of what might happen if you spoke up, or you're trying to avoid conflict. Each of these things contributes to what CNet describes as unintentional stonewalling. With intentional stonewalling, the reasons are more spiteful in nature. It could be a tactic you or your partner is deliberately using to control the other person, and this actually a form of emotional abuse. 

Referred to as one of the Four Horsemen by clinical psychologist John Gottman of The Gottman Institute, stonewalling — together with criticism, defensiveness, and contempt — can ultimately ruin a relationship. 

How stonewalling affects relationships and how to navigate it

One of the most damaging aspects of stonewalling is that it doesn't allow couples to solve the problems at hand. Not only that, but the partner who was shut off can feel disrespected, hurt, and angry. Therapist Doug Roest-Gyimah also notes that stonewalling can make the partner who was stonewalled feel lonely. "Letting someone into our inner-world is allowing both of us to feel close and connected. Chronic stonewalling can lead to chronic loneliness," he explains to Brides. 

The Gottman Institute suggests hitting pause on the argument, especially if you're the one feeling overwhelmed and doing the stonewalling. Having a pre-determined signal or phrase and using it when things are getting too heated can be a kind and respectful way to calm down and reflect. Whether you're the one doing the stonewalling or your partner is, taking a moment during an intense conversation to physiologically self-soothe can also help. This can look like focused breathing, listening to relaxing music, or even meditation, per The Gottman Institute.

Paying attention to your tone and approaching the situation with kindness, especially if your partner is the one doing the stonewalling, can go a long way, according to Roest-Gyimah. "The more aggressive you are, the more likely they are to shut down." Your relationship could benefit from couple's therapy too, especially if being objective is proving difficult for you and your partner.