What is Stonewalling? (& 3 Ways You Can Respond)

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Published Date|
March 27, 2024

What is Stonewalling? (& 3 Ways You Can Respond)

You have something important you need to discuss with your partner. You’ve been thinking about it all day and you can’t wait to get it off of your chest.

When you get home from work, you sit down with your partner in the living room and take a deep breath.

But before you can even finish your sentence, your partner has a blank expression on their face. They tell you they’re not having this conversation, get up, and leave the room.

Stonewalling can be one of the most hurtful communication issues in a relationship - but it doesn’t mean that your relationship will never recover.

Here at KMA Therapy, we’re relationship experts. We’re here to help you understand what drives behaviour in your relationships and explore the reasons why communication issues can occur between you and your partner.

After reading this article, you’ll know what stonewalling is, what causes stonewalling, and three ways to respond if your partner is stonewalling you.

What is Stonewalling?

Stonewalling is the act of refusing to communicate with another party in order to delay a conversation or prevent a negotiation. It can happen in business, politics, legal battles, and yes, in personal relationships.

what is stonewalling

In a relationship, stonewalling can look like your partner creating emotional distance from you by ignoring you, refusing to engage in conversations about certain topics, or avoiding speaking to you entirely.

Examples of stonewalling in relationships include:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Pretending not to hear you
  • Refusing to answer questions
  • Walking away mid-conversation
  • Giving brief replies (one or two words)

Stonewalling is not only frustrating, but it can leave you feeling neglected, confused, and undervalued by your partner.

What Causes Stonewalling?

Stonewalling is a response to feeling overwhelmed and psychologically flooded - if your partner is stonewalling you, they’re likely experiencing a rapid heart rate, a release of stress hormones throughout their body, and the urge to escape from the situation.

what causes stonewalling

Causes of stonewalling include:

  • Trying to escape tension
  • A fear or avoidance of conflict
  • A fear of where the conversation is headed
  • Feeling unable to handle the other person’s emotions

Understanding what causes stonewalling can help you make sense of your partner’s behaviour, but it doesn’t make their behaviour any less frustrating for you.

What’s the Difference Between Stonewalling and the Silent Treatment?

The main difference between stonewalling and the silent treatment is the intent behind the refusal to communicate.

While stonewalling is a response to being overwhelmed, and isn’t always intentional, the silent treatment is an intentional behaviour designed to annoy or frustrate the other person.

But regardless of their intentions, both stonewalling and the silent treatment can be hurtful when you’re on the receiving side and can have the same negative impacts on a relationship.

Is Stonewalling the Same as Gaslighting?

Stonewalling and gaslighting are not the same - while both can be forms of manipulation, gaslighting is an intentional pattern of behaviour aimed at getting you to question the things you know to be true.

Both stonewalling and gaslighting are aimed at prioritizing one’s own needs in a relationship without considering what the other person needs, making them both harmful to the person on the receiving end of these behaviours.

How to Respond to Stonewalling

Responding to stonewalling can be difficult because the other person is refusing to interact with you, but there are some steps you can take to make it easier.

If you think you may be the one stonewalling your partner, these tips can also help you process your emotions and figure out a healthier way to express your feelings.

1. Hit “pause” and come back later

If you see your partner begin to shut down in a conversation, it’s okay to express what you’re seeing.

Let them know that you understand this is a difficult topic and you don’t need to talk about it right now.

Give yourselves time to calm down and regulate your emotions, and come back to the conversation when you’re both ready to have it.

Deciding on a time and place when you’ll unpack the difficult topic you need to discuss gives you and your partner time to prepare for the conversation and removes the stressful element of surprise.

It’s important to set the expectation that you will need to have this conversation later to make sure the stonewalling doesn’t prevent you from expressing your needs.

If you’re seeing a couples therapist, it can also be helpful to save difficult conversations for therapy.

2. Practice self-care

Whether you’re the one doing or receiving the stonewalling behaviour, self-care is important to be able to have productive conversations.

If you’re already feeling overwhelmed and anxious, it will be even harder to have a productive conversation about something that worries you.

Something as simple as going for a walk around the block or having a nourishing meal can help you feel more comfortable having difficult conversations.

You don’t want to be hungry or tired when tackling stressful subjects.

3. Seek support from an expert

Stonewalling is a sign that there are communication issues in your relationship. Communications are a lot more common than you might think, and they don’t mean your relationship is toxic or needs to end.

Exploring communication strategies with a couples therapist can be a helpful way for you and your partner to learn how to have more productive conversations.

Couples counselling can help with stonewalling by providing a safe space to discuss distressing topics and helping you learn new communication techniques.

Next Steps for Healthy Relationships

After reading this article, you know what causes stonewalling and three ways to address it in your relationship.

Here at KMA Therapy, our dedicated team of therapists has helped our clients solve relationship issues for over 15 years.

Register online to learn more about relationship therapy or download our free Therapy 101 Guide to learn more about how therapy can help you.

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Author |
Emily Weatherhead
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