The Emotional Effects of Stonewalling

The Emotional Effects of Stonewalling

Authored by Pin Ng PhD

Edited by Hugh Soames

Reviewed by Michael Por, MD

What is stonewalling?


You may have experienced or are currently in a relationship in which your partner struggles to communicate. There are some people who simply do not communicate with their partners or express their emotions. While this can be natural for some, it can also be a tactic used by others to control their partner. This is called stonewalling and it involves the continued refusal of one person in a relationship to communicate with the other.


Stonewalling is a common tactic people use during conflict or difficult situations. A person may use the tactic to avoid an uncomfortable situation, conversation, or talk with someone else. This is due to the individual feeling afraid to engage in an emotional talk, discussion, or fight1


The meaning of stonewalling


Stonewalling is a behavior used “to delay or obstruct by refusing to answer questions or by being evasive.” It is a harmful tactic that can damage relationships. Being in a relationship with someone who stonewalls can be very difficult. You are likely to feel very frustrated as it is difficult to communicate with the individual who employs the tactic.


Individuals deploy stonewalling to avoid discussions of their feelings. People stonewall by walking out of a conversation without an explanation, refusing to provide nonverbal communication, or refusing to speak about the issue at the heart of the problem. You may feel distressed when your partner stonewalls. In addition, you may feel anger, frustration, and displeasure at your partner.


Stonewalling can be continual with a person withdrawing from conversation for days, weeks, or even months. When a person is stonewalling and leaves a conversation, they are not doing it to calm down. Rather, the individual is using the period to refrain from speaking about the topic at hand. It may also be used to anger or frustrate you. Stonewalling doesn’t mean you will speak to your partner later on about the issue. It means the person doing the stonewalling doesn’t want to talk about the issue.


Is stonewalling in a relationship abuse?


Fear gives birth to stonewalling. It can be used by a person to decrease tension during an overwhelming time or emotional situation. It could also be used to self-sooth to improve a problem. Research has found that men are more likely to stonewall than women. This is often done to avoid conflict and stay neutral.


While it doesn’t sound like stonewalling is a dangerous or damaging tactic, it can be. Stonewalling can be used by a partner to control or manipulate. You may have experienced a partner intentionally using stonewalling by refusing to speak. This is a way to continue the situation over a period of time and prevent you from seeking out other ways to address the issues. Stonewalling can also be used to prevent a person from ending a relationship.


You may feel a range of emotions if your partner employs stonewalling tactics. Your self-esteem can take a major hit and you may feel a sense of hopelessness. In addition, you may feel there is no control over a situation or relationship. Stonewalling is used to gain power in a relationship. The dangerous aspect of stonewalling is that a partner can use it to gain power over their partner. It is a tactic in which you may not even realize the power is being taken by your partner.

Stonewalling signs and symptoms


Stonewalling is not always obvious. Yes, your partner may just get up and walk away without returning to the conversation.


There are other signs and symptoms of stonewalling, and they include:


  • You begin serious discussion by criticizing your boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse
  • Your partner ignores you when you begin talking
  • Your partner is busy with something when you want to have a serious discussion


You may be stonewalling by doing the following:


  • If your partner asks a question or makes a comment, you suddenly become defensive.
  • You avoid arguing with your partner at all times
  • Being “correct” at all times is paramount to you


How do you respond to stonewalling?


The easiest way to respond to a stonewalling partner is to give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps your partner is overwhelmed and are not able to discuss a specific topic. You should try not to engage in a contact with your partner. Make sure your partner knows you are ready to speak when they are ready to communicate.


Although you may be frustrated with your partner’s behavior, the problem could be something you have done. Ensure that your behavior is in check and you haven’t created the issue. Stonewalling could be your partner’s defense mechanism due to something you did.


If you have tried to remain supportive of your partner and stay positive, but the stonewalling hasn’t stopped, you should take a step back. Take care of your own emotions and perform some self-care. If you continue to be supportive and are stonewalled by your partner at the same time, problems could increase.


Stonewalling and Gaslighting


Gaslighting is a non-medical term that was coined in the 1930s. Gaslighting typically involves a person claiming that something that was said didn’t happen. The situation becomes a verbal battle with one person blaming the other and vice-versa. You are told you are lying or imagining things when being gaslit by a partner.


The difference between stonewalling and gaslighting is that the former is about not communicating. Gaslighting occurs when a couple communicate but the communication is negative and becomes a blame game.


The emotional effects of stonewalling


Recognizing stonewalling can be hard. It can be difficult to realize a partner is stonewalling you, although some signs are more obvious than others. If you are the one stonewalling, realizing you are at fault is a major step in the right direction. You can get help to improve your current relationship or a future one.


Therapy is available for individuals to improve negative experiences and relationships. Stonewalling is damaging to relationships and behaviors that cause negative affects need help from professionals. Professional therapy and mental health experts can give you or a partner the help needed to end stonewalling.

References & Citations: The Emotional Effects of Stonewalling

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  11. Levenson RW, Ekman P, Friesen WV. Voluntary facial action generates emotion-specific autonomic nervous system activity. Psychophysiology. 1990;27:363–384. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.1990.tb02330.x. [PubMed] [CrossRef[]
  12. Levenson RW, Haase CM, Bloch L, Holley S, Seider BJ. Emotion regulation in couples. In: Gross JJ, editor. Handbook of emotion regulation. 2nd. New York, NY: The Guilford Press; 2013. pp. 267–283. []
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