How To Identify And Prevent Stonewalling In Your Relationship

All too many of us have been in relationships where one person just shuts down when things get tough. Rather than having the ability to talk through what's wrong and find a way to make things better, they retreat from the situation, making it nearly impossible to work through it. Let's be honest, many of us have been guilty of this behavior ourselves.


The response is known as stonewalling, and it's probably more common in relationships than you might think. That's because so many of us can learn this habit early as a coping device to deal with difficult situations. As licensed clinical social worker and CEO of Upstate Counseling, Doug Roest-Gyimah, explained to Brides, "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. 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."

But just because stonewalling is often a crutch we develop early on in life, it doesn't mean you have to be resigned to a relationship rife with this destructive behavior. Whether you're being stonewalled or doing the stonewalling, it doesn't have to be that way. Because, if it is, your relationship just won't last. It's time to identify it and put an end to the coping mechanism once and for all.


There are two types of stonewalling

There are two different types of stonewalling to look out for. Unintentional stonewalling and intentional stonewalling. And the two types are exactly as they sound.

Unintentional stonewalling happens when a person doesn't realize what they're doing and the destruction it's causing to their relationship. It can come as a natural reaction to help a person deal with difficult issues such as conflict or to avoid tough, serious conversations they don't want to have. Those who stonewall inadvertently often do so because they're trying to stop an argument or keep the peace, and it's the only way (or one of the only ways) they know how.


As for intentional stonewalling, this is when things get more serious. If someone knows they're shutting their partner out and continues to do it anyway, it's not a healthy sign. Some people may use stonewalling as a form of manipulation, or could even be doing it as a way to punish their partner or gain power, such as giving the silent treatment following a tense discussion. That's when stonewalling begins to fall into the category of emotional abuse. It could even be a way of attempting to end a relationship by someone who doesn't have the confidence to pull the plug on the romance themselves. 

Neither one of these is good. As trauma-informed psychotherapist and licensed professional clinical counselor, Ludine Pierre told MBGrelationships, "[Stonewalling] is not effective or sustainable, and over time will erode any relationship."


Stonewalling can take a number of different forms

There are a number of different ways a person can stonewall their partner, and, in many cases, if you're wondering if you're being stonewalled — you probably are. One of the most obvious signs of stonewalling is a complete or partial shutdown. That can be anything from total silent treatment to just giving one-word answers when someone asks important questions designed to talk through an issue. "If one partner stops responding, goes silent, or starts staring at the ground or into space, [that is] a sign of stonewalling. Unresponsiveness is the most blatant form of stonewalling," Doug Roest-Gyimah told Brides. "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."


But they're not the only identifiers. A few other signs you may be being stonewalled? Being ignored, having someone storm off aggressively, changing the subject when discussing something important (or coming up with excuses not to talk things through), being overtly dismissive or passive-aggressive, or making accusations rather than talking things through are also all signs of stonewalling.

However, it's important not to get stonewalling confused with setting healthy boundaries. Some people may prefer to step away from a difficult conversation to calm down or may suggest a more appropriate time to discuss things. If your partner communicates this to you, that's not stonewalling.

Communication is key when it comes to combating this behavior

There are a number of ways you can put an end to stonewalling behavior in a relationship. One of the first steps you should take if you feel you're being stonewalled is to calmly speak to your partner about it in a direct and clear yet understanding way. You may find they're not even aware of the way they've been behaving. "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," Doug Roest-Gyimah suggested to Brides. It's also a good idea here to step away for a few minutes if you decide to discuss stonewalling with your partner following an argument. "While you're probably experiencing your own feelings as a result of being [stonewalled], expressing that when someone is flooded may not be effective," Ludine Pierre told MBGRelationships. Coming back to the conversation when you both feel less emotionally charged is more likely to result in a more positive, productive discussion.


Once you've worked to identify the problem together, the next step is to find a better way of communicating with one another instead of shutting down. That may not be smooth sailing at first and may take some trial and error, but working through this together may actually make your relationship stronger.

There's work you can do on yourself, too

Whether the stonewalling issue lies with you or your partner, it's incredibly important to get to the root of the issue. If you're stonewalling, do some internal searching to discover why you feel unable to have honest conversations with your partner. "Once we realize why, we can talk about it and try to address it," Roest-Gyimah shared. As well as opening up in your relationship, it may also be helpful to visit a therapist (either alone or as a couple) to help identify any triggers.


Practicing self-care is another way to help prevent stonewalling. If you're being stonewalled, taking care of yourself and doing things you love may help you feel more confident in addressing things with your partner. Equally, if you're stonewalling, ensuring you're taking care of your own needs and keeping your mental health in check may make you less susceptible to shutting down.

It also can't help to put yourself in your partner's position and realize why they may be stonewalling you. Though intentional stonewalling is never acceptable, if they're doing it unintentionally, understanding their reasons will help you handle the situation better. Joyce Marter, a licensed clinical professional counselor, told Fatherly, "Realize that they may not have great communication or conflict resolution skills and that this has nothing to do with you." However, if your partner is stonewalling you and they aren't responding to your attempts to change things, it may be time to walk away.