When your partner emotionally switches off, it can be hard to know how to play it. Whether it's mid-argument or out of the blue, there’s simply no way of getting through to them. If you’re lucky, you get one or two-word answers. If you’re not, you get deafening silence. The situation can feel impossible. Welcome to the wonderful world of stonewalling.
What Is Stonewalling?
Stonewalling is when one person is cognitively or emotionally inaccessible to another person. In relationships, this means one partner blocks out the other in a figurative or literal sense.
Unsurprisingly, this defensive stance often harks back to our childhoods. "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," says therapist Doug Roest-Gyimah. "If someone is afraid of conflict—say they grew up in a household where conflict meant a lack of safety or sudden instability—they might shut down to maintain a sense of safety."
Meet the Expert
Doug Roest-Gyimah is a licensed clinical social worker and CEO of Upstate Counseling.
Ready to break down that emotional wall? Ahead, Roest-Gyimah shares what stonewalling in a relationship looks like and how to overcome it.
The Three Signs of Stonewalling
Chances are, you can recognize stonewalling when you see it. Your partner may blank you, pull away from you, or give you the silent treatment. Let’s take a look at the signs:
Your Partner Shuts Down
"If one partner stops responding, goes silent, or starts staring at the ground or into space, [that is] a sign of stonewalling," explains Roest-Gyimah. "Unresponsiveness is the most blatant form of stonewalling."
You Only Receive One-Word Answers
"If in the middle of a conversation or argument one partner begins to be short, saying 'yup,' 'sure,' 'uh-huh,' these are signs of stonewalling. The person is intentionally not sharing the full content of their inner experience," adds Roest-Gyimah.
You Feel Distant From Your Partner
He continues, "Although taking breaks and walking away from intense fights can be a great strategy, continued distance can be a way of building a wall around oneself and limit access that a partner has to another."
How Stonewalling Impacts Relationships
If you or your partner build a figurative wall every time there’s a disagreement, it’s unhealthy. As Roest-Gyimah explains, this habit can reverberate through every part of your relationship. Here’s what you need to know.
Stonewalling Can Lead to Unresolved Issues
"Once one partner denies access from the other partner, the original issues and grievances that were brought up are now left unaddressed," says Roest-Gyimah. "Sure, the stonewalling partner avoided having to continue to engage in uncomfortable dialogue, but as a by-product, the important issues were also avoided. Stonewalling avoids two things—discomfort and resolving issues."
Stonewalling Can Cause Disrespect Between Partners
It doesn’t end there. Stonewalling is a matter of respect—or lack thereof. "When someone shuts you out, it can feel quite disrespectful, even hurtful. In love that lasts, there is also respect. When couples get to a point of not feeling respected by one another, they are in trouble and should seek help," says Roest-Gyimah.
Stonewalling Can Make One Partner Feel Lonely
"A lack of access to a partner can be quite isolating and lonely. The opposite of loneliness is connection and to truly connect to another, we need access to their honest thoughts and emotions," says Roest-Gyimah. "Letting someone into our inner-world is allowing both of us to feel close and connected. Chronic stonewalling can lead to chronic loneliness. Many couples have said to me, 'It's like we are in the same room but still apart.'"
Stonewalling Can Spawn Anger and Resentment
"Stonewalling can lead to some intense conflict. This is often because being ignored can trigger some really deep wounds in us," says Roest-Gyimah. "If we grew up with caregivers who were constantly inaccessible, emotionally cold, or withdrew affection, when our lover ignores us, it can send us into a whirlwind of hurt. Emotional withdrawal is more triggering for some than others. Some seem to be able to handle their partner checking out just fine. On the other hand, for some, it can hurt really bad. In those people, stonewalling should be addressed at its first signs."
How to Deal With Stonewalling
So, how do you address stonewalling? When you’ve noticed the above signs and want to change your relationship for the better, there are some strategies you can use. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. Try the following expert-backed approaches instead.
See a Relationship Therapist
"First, of course, it can help to work through these common but problematic conflict patterns with a professional," says Roest-Gyimah. "We can't always be objective in our own relationships, and we tend to have blind spots when it comes to our own stuff." A therapist may see something that the two of you have not.
Approach Your Partner With Gentle Kindness
"Some people have no issues marching forward and righteously arguing with others. If you are that person, realize that your partner needs a sense of safety, calmness, quietness, and slowness," says Roest-Gyimah. "Show that you respect their need for safety, without shutting down your own needs to have the dialogue. The more aggressive you are, the more likely they are to shut down."
Be Clear and Direct
Getting your tone right is everything. "We don't want to walk on eggshells. We also don't want to aggressively pursue. There is a happy medium: calm, clear, and direct. Stonewalling often becomes a pursuer and distancer game that we can play. We want to get out of the game and back into healthy adult communication."
Pinpoint the Problem
"If you are the one who finds yourself shutting people out, it's important to get to the function of that behavior so it can be worked through," says Roest-Gyimah. "Are you shutting down because you start to feel unsafe or sense aggression? Or do you feel hopeless, like no matter what you say you will be argued into a corner? Once we realize why we can talk about it and try to address it."
Causes of Stonewalling
Whether you believe you're the one doing the stonewalling and want to pinpoint triggers, or simply would like to better understand your partner's mental and emotional state, we've listed some of the major causes below.
- Difficulty expressing emotions or not feeling safe to do so
- Fear of consequences for voicing emotions
- An attempt to keep the peace or diffuse emotionally charged conversations
- Habitual or learned communication or conflict style
- Coping mechanism to avoid feeling anxious or overwhelmed by emotions or conflict
- A tactic for punishing or manipulating a partner
- An attempt to passively bring the relationship to an end
Unintentional Stonewalling vs. Intentional Stonewalling
As the causes of stonewalling can range across a spectrum of intensity, it's important to discern the intent behind the behavior. Unintentional stonewalling, for example, isn't malicious in nature. This is typically a defense or survival mechanism being used to cope with emotional discomfort during moments of conflict and heightened stimuli. Depending on the history of the behavior's evolution, the person may not even realize they're doing it. Intentional stonewalling, however, is much more weaponized. In this case, the behavior is consciously used as a strategy to manipulate, dominate, control, or punish a partner.