The tell-tale signs of stonewalling during an argument and how to respond to this frustrating tactic
- Stonewalling is the act of withdrawing from a conversation during a conflict.
- Some signs are refusing to answer direct questions or leaving in the middle of the fight.
Do you ever feel like your partner won't cooperate with you when you are trying to work through a conflict, or that they completely shut down when you try to talk to them? If so, your partner might be stonewalling you.
When you're a victim of stonewalling, it can make you feel like your partner doesn't care about you or the relationship.
While that may be true, the causes of stonewalling are more complicated. But be assured, if stonewalling is left unaddressed, it can cause long-term problems in your relationship.
Here's what you need to know about stonewalling, and what to do if someone is stonewalling you.
What is stonewalling?
"Simply put, stonewalling is shutting down and withdrawing from a conversation during a conflict," says Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the founder of Take Root Therapy.
Since communication is key in a healthy relationship, it can be extremely difficult to work through conflicts in a healthy way if you are putting yourself out there, trying to communicate, and your partner shuts down and stonewalls you.
According to Lurie, here are some signs that your partner might be stonewalling you:
- They refuse to answer your direct questions
- They give you the silent treatment
- They leave in the middle of a fight
- They avoid eye contact when speaking
- They roll their eyes when you talk to them
- They try to deflect any blame
- They try to change the subject when you're talking
- They come up with reasons to downplay your attempts at voicing your concerns
"Stonewalling can be incredibly harmful to a relationship. It can be interpreted as a lack of care about the other partner's feelings and an unwillingness to collaborate and find solutions," Lurie says.
Why do people stonewall?
There are various reasons why someone may engage in stonewalling –– both intentionally or unintentionally. Intentional stonewalling is a toxic behavior, since the perpetrator deliberately uses it to get what they want.
Lurie says some potential reasons why someone would deliberately stonewall you include:
- They are using it as a manipulation tactic to avoid accountability
- They are ignoring you as a way to punish you
- They are deliberately trying to draw out the conflict, perhaps to prevent you from ending the relationship
"When there is awareness around this type of behavior, the individual exhibiting stonewalling behaviors can often assume what their partner's response to the stonewalling will be, which can feel like they have the 'upper hand' in the relationship," says Sahar Martinez, a licensed marriage and family therapist and doctor of psychology in private practice.
For example, Martinez says someone may purposely give their partner the silent treatment because they know it will be triggering for them and make them fear abandonment in the relationship, keeping themselves in the position of power.
But on the other hand, some people unintentionally stonewall because they grew up watching their caregivers exhibit similar behavior.
"We often see this from people that grew up in homes where their primary caregivers did not create an emotionally open and safe environment where healthy expressions of feelings were modeled or welcomed," Martinez says.
In these cases, stonewalling is a learned behavior that they carry on into adult relationships –– which ultimately can hurt their partnerships. In this case, stonewallers can get help by working with a therapist who can address attachment styles and any adverse childhood experiences, says Martinez.
By working on themselves and past trauma, present and future relationships can have healthier communication.
How to navigate being stonewalled
If you are being stonewalled, you may need to take some extra steps to care for yourself and the relationship. It may be difficult to get your partner to cooperate, but in order for a relationship to be healthy and succeed, communication needs to be open.
Here are six steps for you to navigate being stonewalled:
1. Bring up the stonewalling when you're not in the heat of the moment
"Taking time to address the stonewalling when you're not in the middle of a fight can be helpful because neither of you will be coming from a place of hurt or blame," Lurie says.
For example, she says during a neutral moment like doing kitchen chores at the end of the night, you can ask your partner when they have the availability to talk through something.
This will help your partner see that you're trying to understand where they're coming from, and ultimately help them feel more comfortable expressing themselves during a conflict.
2. Use direct and descriptive language
Martinez says when you address the stonewalling behavior with your partner, it's best to speak very directly, sharing what you need from your partner and how it feels when they stonewall you. This can also help them realize that they are stonewalling you if they are doing it unintentionally.
For example, Martine says you could tell your partner:
- "I'm sensing that you're pulling away from this conversation."
- "When you stop responding to me, I'm unsure of how to move forward with this discussion in a way that honors both our needs."
- "I can see that you are overwhelmed, and I feel very alone when you abruptly disengage from me."
3. Pay attention to body language
When you're actively in a conflict with your partner, Lurie suggests noticing body language, such as if your partner is crossing their arms or turning their head to look away.
"In those moments, it might be helpful to suggest hitting pause or taking a breather before things escalate. You might even agree to fully stop talking about the issue for the night and set a time to come back to it when both of you feel less activated," Lurie says.
4. Be mindful of your own behavior
It's important to be mindful, since it can be easy to fall into a trap and mirror your partner's stonewalling behaviors, such as giving them the silent treatment back, says Martinez.
If you notice that you start to do this, Martinez says you may want to tell your partner that you'd like to continue the conversation when you can both come together to communicate in a calm and supportive way.
5. See a couples counselor
If stonewalling has been a constant in your relationship and it doesn't seem to be improving, you may want to look into professional help.
"Seeking the guidance of a couples counselor can also prove to be very beneficial as they can assist you both in developing the tools needed to find healthy and productive solutions when conflict arises in the future," Lurie says.
6. Practice self-care
Being a victim of stonewalling can take a toll on you. It can truly be exhausting, so it's crucial to take care of yourself during this process.
Martinez says self-soothing behaviors can be as simple as taking some time and space to yourself to cool off, or taking a nice hot shower to relax. A few other general self-care ideas include:
- Going for a walk or run
- Spending some time in nature
Stonewalling is when someone shuts down or withdraws during a conversation, typically related to conflict.
It can be intentional or unintentional, used as a manipulation tactic or more of a defense mechanism.
This behavior can ultimately take a toll on a relationship since it prevents successful communication from occurring.
It's important to take steps to work through the stonewalling behavior for healthy communication in a lasting, stable, and happy relationship.
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