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Stonewalling: What It Is and Is It Ruining Relationships

Key Takeaways:

  • Stonewalling is emotionally withdrawing or shutting down during conflict instead of communicating openly. It leaves issues unresolved and damages intimacy.
  • There are various motivations behind stonewalling – childhood trauma, avoiding confrontation, manipulation, gaslighting, or checking out of the relationship. Understanding the root cause is key.
  • Being stonewalled can make partners feel frustrated, disrespected, resentful, helpless, and lonely. It leads to relationship erosion over time.
  • Both partners need to try to overcome stonewalling – the stonewaller working on vulnerability and communication skills, the partner on compassionate boundaries.
  • Professional help like individual counselling, couples therapy, or attachment therapy can provide tools and accountability to transform engrained stonewalling habits.

What is Stonewalling?

Chances are, you’ve felt that chill during an argument with your partner. You try to communicate, but your attempts at conversation are met with silent treatment. Or maybe your partner gives you shortemotionless answers while avoiding eye contact. Stonewalling is this act of emotional withdrawal and refusal to communicate that can leave you feeling alone even when your partner is right before you.

Stonewalling behaviours can vary, but some common forms include the following:

  • Refusing to answer questions or contribute meaningfully to a discussion
  • Shutting down emotionally and ignoring attempts to converse
  • Turning away physically or leaving the room without explanation
  • Giving short, one-word answers like “sure” or “fine.”
  • Tuning out by staring off into space or at a phone/TV screen

Stonewallers may claim they want to avoid an argument, but stonewalling usually makes disagreements worse. Without communication, conflicts stay unresolved, and feelings get bottled up.

two people sitting on a bench quietly as one is stonewalling the conversation

Why Do Partners Stonewall?

There are a few common motivations behind stonewalling:

  • To avoid uncomfortable conversations or confrontations
  • Feeling emotionally flooded/overwhelmed
  • As a protective reaction to childhood trauma (defensive mechanism)
  • To manipulate or intentionally hurt the other partner as a form of emotional abuse. 

For some, stonewalling is a subconscious defence mechanism when they feel attacked. For others, it can be a form of passive aggression or punishment. Regardless of the reason, stonewalling erodes trust and intimacy in relationships.

Avoiding ConfrontationStonewalling to shut down uncomfortable conversations or disagreements
Emotional FloodingStonewalling due to feeling overwhelmed and needing to withdraw
Childhood Trauma ResponseStonewalling instinctively as a protective reaction learned in childhood
Manipulation/PunishmentStonewalling to hurt or control the partner intentionally

The Emotional Impact

Being stonewalled can leave you feeling:

  • Frustrated at the lack of communication
  • Disrespected and dismissed
  • Resentful of your partner’s withdrawal
  • Lonely and disconnected even when together
  • Helpless to get through to your partner

Over time, these feelings can build until a relationship collapses. Unchecked stonewalling is one of the strongest predictors of future separation or divorce.

While stonewallers may think they’re avoiding conflict, they’re sinking the relationship. Don’t lose hope, though – stonewalling can be overcome with mutual understanding and effort. With the right strategies, you can break through emotional barriers and get your relationship back on track.

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Causes and Motivations

Stonewalling arises from various roots. By understanding what motivates this behaviour, both partners can address it more compassionately and constructively. Let’s explore some common causes behind stonewalling:

Unintentional Stonewalling

For many, stonewalling stems from instinct more than intention. Past experiences can wire our brains to withdraw out of self-protection. Common unintentional causes include:

Childhood Trauma Response

If someone experiences emotional neglect, criticism, or volatility growing up, they may stonewall as a coping mechanism without realizing it. They couldn’t escape confrontation as a child, so they learned to check out emotionally. This can become an unconscious reaction in adulthood, too. Therapy can help unpack these childhood defence patterns.

Conflict Avoidance

Some people have an aversion to confrontation and may stonewall to shut down disagreements. They don’t intend to hurt their partner but can’t handle the perceived “danger” of open discord. This often stems from non-confrontational family dynamics or personalities that prioritize harmony.

Emotional Flooding

Highly sensitive people may experience emotional flooding – where feelings become so intense they feel physically overwhelmed. To self-soothe, they instinctively withdraw and shut down. What helps is learning techniques together to pause, breathe, and reconnect when emotions run high.

Intentional Stonewalling

In some cases, stonewalling is a conscious choice used to:

Manipulate or Punish

Some stonewallers use emotional withdrawal to assert control or shift blame during conflicts. By refusing to engage, they force their partner to either “drop it” or look like the argumentative one. This power play erodes trust and goodwill over time.

Check Out of the Relationship

One partner may start stonewalling in troubled relationships to speed up a breakup. They disconnect emotionally to avoid working on the relationship and remain detached until separation. Unfortunately, this form of stonewalling is harder to overcome.

Gender Differences

Research shows some variance in how genders use stonewalling:

  • Men stonewall more frequently overall, especially under stress. This may stem from difficulty processing emotions.
  • Women find stonewalling more distressing. They often pursue resolution, which can worsen stonewalling.
  • When women do stonewall, it strongly predicts future relationship dissolution.

Despite general patterns, individuals stonewall for personal reasons. Assumptions based on gender won’t help you or your partner. Focus instead on understanding motivations.

Is Your Partner's Stonewalling Intentional or Unintentional?

Discerning intent helps shape your response. Consider:

  • Unintentional stonewalling tends to be inconsistent and tied to situational stressors. Partners are open to change.
  • Intentional stonewalling is a rigid response regardless of context. Partners resist interventions.

Of course, human behaviour is complex. However, looking at patterns can reveal underlying motivations. Here are some questions to help reflect:

  • Does your partner only stonewall during specific topics or settings? This points to a situational trigger.
  • Do they refuse to discuss the stonewalling or problems in the relationship? This may signal intent.
  • Does stonewalling seem tied to external stress like work problems or grief? If so, it may not be about you.
  • Have they stonewalled past partners as well, or only you? The former hints at unintentional behaviour.
  • Does your partner accept responsibility for their actions and show interest in change? If so, take heart.

While you can never know someone’s internal state, the above reflections can help you understand what you’re working with. From there, you can tailor your responses accordingly.

The causes behind stonewalling are complex. But, identifying motivations creates pathways to overcome them. With compassionate effort from both partners, you can melt down emotional walls and find intimacy again.

The Damaging Impacts on Relationships

Stonewalling takes a heavy toll on relationships over time. Unresolved conflicts and a lack of emotional connection can slowly poison partnerships. Understanding these common impacts is the first step to mitigating them:

Poor Communication and Conflict Resolution

By shutting down conversations, stonewallers leave issues unresolved. Problems bottle up and fester rather than getting worked through. This creates a growing pile of ” relationship debt” that erodes closeness.

Without communication, the partner being stonewalled also can’t share their perspective. This makes finding win-win compromises impossible.

Feelings of Disrespect

Being stonewalled sends the message that your thoughts and feelings don’t matter. It’s a form of rejection and dismissal that dishonours the relationship.

The partner being stonewalled feels ignored and disregarded. This breeds resentment that poisons affection.

Emotional Isolation and Loneliness

Relationships thrive on vulnerability and emotional intimacy. Stonewalling slams the door shut on openness, leaving the stonewalled partner alone even while physically together.

Rather than sharing joys, pains, hopes, and fears, the couple lives disconnected. This starves the relationship of meaning over time.

Anger and Resentment

The frustration of repeated stonewalling leads to anger and resentment in the stonewalled partner. They perceive their needs as unimportant to their partner.

This bitterness can overflow into other areas, tainting the overall relationship. Partners view each other more negatively overall.

Separation and Divorce

Research psychologist Dr. John Gottman identified stonewalling as one of the four key predictors of future divorce.

Without intervention, stonewalling often ends relationships over time. Partners may separate physically long before an official divorce.

Infidelity Risk

The loneliness and isolation of being stonewalled can make people vulnerable to emotional or physical affairs. Unmet needs open doors for others to connect in inappropriate ways.

While cheating is never justified, stonewalling damages relationships to the point that people seek fulfillment elsewhere.

Toxic Stress and Anxiety

Bottling up emotions and unresolved conflicts create toxic relationship stress—the unrelenting tension strains mental and physical health.

Prolonged exposure to this “fight or flight” stress can lead to chronic anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and more.

The stakes of stonewalling are clear. While one partner may think they’re avoiding conflict, stonewalling poisons relationships in myriad ways over time. The good news is these impacts can be reversed through courage, patience, and commitment to healthy relating from both parties.


Stonewalling creates distance and discord in relationships. But with understanding and effort, couples can dismantle emotional barriers and reconnect. Here are some proven tactics:

For the Stonewaller

If you stonewall your partner, overcoming this pattern begins with self-work:

  • Get to the roots: Reflect on what motivates your stonewalling through journaling or discussing with a therapist. Understanding your triggers is the first step.
  • Practice self-soothing: When flooded, avoid unhealthy escape. Instead, learn techniques like mindful breathing, walking, or listening to music before re-engaging.
  • Build emotional communication skills: Use “I” statements to share feelings and needs. Seek coaching if this is difficult.
  • Show vulnerability: Open up about fears, feelings of shame, and past wounds that may underlie stonewalling. This builds intimacy and trust.
  • Take responsibility and get professional help: Own your contribution to relationship problems rather than shutting down. Offer apologies for the harm stonewalling causes.

With consistent effort, these steps can dismantle ingrained stonewalling over time.

For the Partner

If your partner’s stonewalling pushes you away, proactive responses prevent escalation:

  • Have compassion: Remember, stonewalling comes from a place of inadequacy, not malice. Meet it with patience, not aggression.
  • Establish rules of engagement: Agree to “pause” conversations respectfully when emotions run hot so you can revisit issues later with cool heads.
  • Speak gently and directly: Use non-violent communication to express your feelings without attacking, demanding, or shutting down.
  • Give space, but follow up: If your partner stonewalls, politely revisit the conversation in 24 hours. Avoid sweeping issues under the rug.
  • Suggest counselling: Recommend couples therapy or individual therapy to address recurring stonewalling. This shows commitment to growth.

With time and consistency, your clear boundaries can help break stonewalling habits.

Seeking Outside Support

For ingrained stonewalling patterns, professional support provides structure and guidance:

  • Individual counselling helps stonewallers unearth root causes and develop emotional communication skills.
  • Couples counselling gives you tools to express needs, engage consciously, and unwind conflicts before they escalate.
  • Attachment therapy helps couples with childhood trauma form secure bonds.

While commitment to change is essential, therapists provide accountability, perspective, and guidance in this challenging process.

Here are signs it may be time to seek counselling:

  • One partner stonewalls frequently and won’t address it
  • Issues are routinely avoided or swept under the rug
  • Resentment is building, and affection is deteriorating
  • You no longer feel safe or heard by your partner
  • Past attempts to overcome stonewalling have failed

Even if only one partner initially participates, counselling can unravel stonewalling issues.

Creating Positive Change

With consistent effort, understanding, and professional support, stonewalling patterns can transform:

  • For the stonewaller: They build confidence, expressing themselves vulnerably. This reduces their urge to withdraw.
  • For the partner: They learn to respond constructively to defuse stonewalling. This discourages stonewalling reactions.
  • For the relationship: Healthy communication replaces stonewalling. Affection is rebuilt on a foundation of vulnerability.

With time, the trust and strength of overcoming this challenge together can deepen your relationship. Have hope – people can change, and stonewalling can end. The key is committing to the process with caring support.

Preventing Stonewalling in Relationships

The best way to handle stonewalling is stopping it before it starts. While some causes are deeply ingrained, there are still proactive steps couples can take:

Learn healthy communication habits:

  • Use “I feel” statements to express emotions calmly
  • Avoid criticism, contempt, and character attacks
  • Listen actively without interruption
  • Compromise and validate each other

These skills allow you to engage constructively, even during conflicts. Classes, books, and coaching can help build communication muscle.

Establish rules of engagement:

When tensions run high, agree to:

  • Pause and reconnect later when overwhelmed
  • Avoid topics when exhausted, hangry, or otherwise triggered
  • Take breaks and self-soothe before re-engaging
  • Seek understanding – not just agreement

These ground rules help you fight fairly and minimize emotional flooding, leading to stonewalling.

Practice emotional intelligence:

  • Build self-awareness around your triggers
  • Soothe anger and anxiety before they control you
  • Express feelings assertively, not aggressively
  • Empathize rather than react to your partner’s emotions

Managing your inner world prevents conflicts from spinning out of control.

Does childhood trauma work:

Shadows from the past – neglect, volatility, criticism – can make us stonewall reflexively as adults. Seeking attachment therapy can help heal these wounds so they stop hijacking the present.

While stonewalling arises unconsciously, prioritizing these practices trains your brain over time. Emotional safety in vulnerability replaces the urge to withdraw.

Of course, it takes two to build a healthy relationship. While you can’t force your partner to change, living by example can influence them to relate consciously. With time and tenacity, prevention sustains happier connections.

Real-World Examples of Overcoming Stonewalling

Seeing how other couples moved through stonewalling can inspire hope and ideas. Let’s look at two case studies:

Mia and Sebastien

Mia felt rejected whenever Sebastien stonewalled during arguments. She sidestepped more challenging conversations to avoid his withdrawal, leading to unresolved resentment.

Sebastien realized he was stonewalled to evade conflict in couples counselling as his passive father did. He worked on expressing himself vulnerably.

Meanwhile, Mia practiced calming her abandonment fears when Sebastien withdrew so she could re-engage patiently later.

With effort, they broke the pursue-withdraw pattern. Now, they tackle issues directly but take breaks to self-soothe when needed.

Ravi and Michelle

Michelle’s emotional flooding in a conflict triggered Ravi’s stonewalling. They got stuck in vicious cycles.

In individual therapy, Michelle managed anxiety and calmly communicated their needs.

Ravi realized he was stonewalled to punish Michelle for “provoking” him. He owned his choices and practiced staying engaged.

Jointly, they instituted a “pause” rule. When overwhelmed, either can pause kindly and pick up later when cool.

Today, Ravi and Michelle argue constructively by expressing feelings directly yet compassionately. Their relationship has deepened.

Key Takeaways

In both cases, the couples:

  • Took ownership – the stonewaller worked on vulnerability, and the partner on responses.
  • Created safety valves – like pausing and self-soothing – to prevent destructive escalation.
  • Replaced blame with an understanding of root causes.
  • Learned healthier communication habits through counselling.
  • Stuck with the process – change took months, not days.

Stonewalling patterns can transform into conscious intimacy with mutual care, effort, and commitment. There is hope, as these real-world examples illustrate.

For Canadian couples, options like Wellbeing Counselling offer in-person and online therapy across BC and Ontario. With understanding and effort, relationships can be rebuilt from stonewalling over time.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  • Pause the discussion and self-soothe when emotions run high, then re-engage when calm.
  • Listen to understand your partner's perspective, not just rebut it.
  • Validate their feelings even if you disagree on facts.
  • Compromise - don't demand total capitulation.
  • If needed, consult a therapist or neutral third party.
  • Use "I feel __" statements to own your emotions.
  • Avoid critical "you" statements that provoke defensiveness.
  • Speak your truth calmly without drama or exaggeration.
  • Be vulnerable - hiding feelings can lead to bottling up and stonewalling.
  • Request specific behaviours rather than criticizing character.
  • Give them space, but request to resume the conversation within 24 hours.
  • Approach them gently and directly when re-engaging.
  • Suggest a coping strategy like taking turns sharing feelings.
  • Focus on understanding their perspective.
  • Validate their emotions and your shared desire to resolve the issue.

Not necessarily. Some common motivations are:

  • Childhood trauma survival mechanisms
  • Conflict avoidance
  • Emotional flooding
  • Manipulation or punishment
  • Checking out of the relationship

Look for patterns to discern underlying causes.

  • The stonewaller should acknowledge the harm done and commit to conscious change.
  • The partner can forgive past stonewalling but maintain boundaries moving forward.
  • Do the work - counselling, reading books, relationship education workshops.
  • Rebuild intimacy through vulnerability, empathy, affection, and quality time.
  • Focus on creating positive new patterns.

Micro-cheating refers to behaviours approaching the line between appropriate and inappropriate without crossing into full-blown cheating. Examples could include heavy flirting, maintaining dating app profiles in a committed relationship, sharing intimate details about your relationship with someone you're attracted to, or nurturing crushes.

Picture of Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen’s career began in Behaviour Therapy, this is where she developed a passion for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approaches. Following a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Psychology she pursued a Master of Counselling. Pareen is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC) with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. She specializes in CBT and Lifespan Integrations approaches to anxiety and trauma. She has been published on major online publications such as - Yahoo, MSN, AskMen, PsychCentral, Best Life Online, and more.

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