What Is Stonewalling? Here's How This Defense Mechanism Is Hurting Your Relationship (2024)

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—but this one-sided defense mechanism is so common, it actually has a name.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 your partner's emotional wall? Ahead, Roest-Gyimah shares what stonewalling in a relationship looks like—and how to overcome it.

3 Signs and Examples of Stonewalling

Chances are, you can recognize stonewalling when you see it. Your partner may go blank, pull away, or give you the silent treatment. Let’s take a closer 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 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 After the Argument

"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," Roest-Gyimah says.

What Is Stonewalling? Here's How This Defense Mechanism Is Hurting Your Relationship (1)

How Stonewalling Hurts Relationships

If you or your partner build up a figurative wall every time there’s a disagreement, you aren't practicing healthy communication. 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 result in 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." For a lot of people, this is the worst part: "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," he adds. "In those people, stonewalling should be addressed at its first signs."

Stonewalling Can Be a Form of Gaslighting

Anyone who has experienced gaslighting knows how upsetting it can be when your partner calls your sense of reality into question. If done intentionally, stonewalling can be a form of gaslighting: Being ignored or given one-word answers can make you doubt your (valid) concerns, especially if your partner is also denying your feelings during an argument.

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 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."

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The Main 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

Types of Stonewalling

As the causes of this defense mechanism can range across a spectrum of intensity, it's important to discern the intent behind the behavior. Ultimately, intent (or lack thereof) informs the type of stonewalling you're dealing with: intentional or unintentional.

Unintentional Stonewalling

Unintentional stonewalling 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. A person engaging in this type of stonewalling fears their partner's reaction or doesn't want to make an argument worse. Depending on the history of the behavior's evolution, they may not even realize they're doing it.

Intentional Stonewalling

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. Ultimately, this can become a form of verbal abuse; if you think this is happening to you, you should seek out a counselor for advice.

5 Signs Your Relationship Could Benefit from Couples Counseling

What Is Stonewalling? Here's How This Defense Mechanism Is Hurting Your Relationship (2024)


What Is Stonewalling? Here's How This Defense Mechanism Is Hurting Your Relationship? ›

Stonewalling is, well, what it sounds like. In a discussion or argument, the listener withdraws from the interaction, shutting down and closing themselves off from the speaker because they are feeling overwhelmed or physiologically flooded. Metaphorically speaking, they build a wall between them and their partner.

How does stonewalling damage a relationship? ›

Stonewalling is a negative and destructive way of communicating. It often causes people to withdraw from the other person, which harms the emotional intimacy in a relationship. As people withdraw, it creates a sense of distance and the people in the relationship may begin to grow apart.

What type of person uses stonewalling? ›

Unintentional and intentional stonewalling

“Unintentional stonewalling is often a sign that someone is having difficulty coping with the conversation,” Dr. Albers explains. “They may be conflict avoidant. It might even be a fight-or-flight response: They need to escape.”

Why is stonewalling so toxic? ›

Stonewalling can keep partners from expressing their feelings, solving problems together, or connecting on a deeper level. It can create a power imbalance in a relationship and cause one partner to feel disregarded.

What kind of trauma causes stonewalling? ›

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.

Is stonewalling narcissistic? ›

Stonewalling is a tactic that narcissists use. where they completely refuse to talk to you, respond to your texts or calls. in an effort to gain control over you.

How to deal with a partner who stonewalls? ›

How to respond to stonewalling
  1. Use 'I' statements in conversations. Because stonewalling is often a defensive mechanism, the moment you realize it could be happening, try to make a shift. ...
  2. Ask for a break. ...
  3. Address stonewalling outside of the conflict. ...
  4. Take care of yourself. ...
  5. Check for triggers. ...
  6. Seek solo or couples therapy.
Oct 6, 2022

Is stonewalling a form of manipulation? ›

Stonewalling can also be a manipulative or controlling strategy. When stonewalling is deliberate, the partner who refuses to communicate is often drawing the situation out and preventing the other partner from seeking out other options to address the conflict or even end the relationship.

What is the root of stonewalling? ›

Stonewalling often stems from a combination of factors, including: Overwhelm: One partner may become overwhelmed by emotions and feel the need to withdraw to manage their feelings. Avoidance of Conflict: Some individuals stonewall as a way to avoid confrontations and uncomfortable discussions.

What does stonewalling do to the victim? ›

Stonewalling as a form of domestic abuse

It can demean a partner while gaining control over a situation. The psychological impact of stonewalling is significant, with victims often grappling with feelings of severe loneliness, anxiety, and depression.

Why does being stonewalled hurt so much? ›

If done intentionally, stonewalling can be a form of gaslighting: Being ignored or given one-word answers can make you doubt your (valid) concerns, especially if your partner is also denying your feelings during an argument.

How do you beat stonewalling? ›

5 Tips for Dealing with Stonewalling
  1. Practice self-compassion. Recognize that stonewalling can be extremely frustrating, even infuriating. ...
  2. Choose healthy and adaptive ways to process your feelings. ...
  3. Practice healthy detachment. ...
  4. Write them a letter. ...
  5. Practice empathy.
Jan 30, 2023

Is stonewalling a reason to break up? ›

Eventually, Gottman included stonewalling as one of the Four Horsem*n, which are four behaviors that can have negative effects on close relationships and lead couples to break up. In his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Gottman explains how stonewalling can exacerbate a conflict.

What is the antidote to stonewalling in a relationship? ›

The antidote to stonewalling is to learn to calm yourself down actively and then to re-engage in the conversation. Antidotes to stonewalling: – Check for feelings of being emotionally overwhelmed (i.e. emotional flooding). – Take time out: Tell your partner you need a break from the conflict discussion.


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