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Stonewalling: What is stonewalling and why do some people do it?

If you are a victim of stonewalling and believe you require legal support. Then please contact our team to speak to a specialist family lawyer

What is stonewalling?

Stonewalling meaning, or the definition of stonewalling…

Stonewalling abuse in a relationship is when one person refuses to communicate or cooperate with their partner becoming like “a stone wall”. You may know it as its more common name, the ‘silent treatment’.

Alternatively stonewalling can mean a partner dismissing everything as if the other person is “making a big deal out of nothing”, belittling what they say or pretending “everything is fine”, when clearly it is not.

Being stonewalled can be incredibly frustrating for the person on the receiving end as they want to know what is wrong but are unable to get an answer. It can be considered a form of emotional abuse and is often used as a form of control.

Why do we stonewall in relationships?

People stonewall in relationships for a number of different reasons. 

For some, it is a way to punish a partner because of something they have done. Often people believe their partner should know what is wrong without them saying it. 

Others stonewall as they are not capable of expressing what they are feeling, at times because it is too difficult or painful. Again, people often believe their partner should know what is wrong or be able to figure it out. 

It can happen when couples are really busy and get out of the habit of discussing emotions or when someone is unsure of what they are feeling so it seems easier to say nothing. 

Some people may stonewall as it is a habit they have had for a long time, especially those people brought up in an environment where no one said how they were feeling. Or if they did it was met with negative consequences. For some people talking about emotions and feelings can make them feel incredibly anxious and avoidance is a preferable route. 

The more sinister side of stonewalling is when it is used with intent, often an attempt by a partner to dominate the relationship by not addressing any issues they prevent you from taking any action.  

How to recognise stonewalling

You may not realise that you are being stonewalled. You may not realise that you are subjecting your partner to stonewalling abuse.

The starting point is to look at your partners and also your own behaviours in the relationship. Take notes in a diary over time to see if patterns emerge. 

Listed below are some of the signs of stonewalling in a relationship. 

Signs of stonewalling 

  • They ignore you when you talk and do not respond to any questions (this can last weeks or even months)
  • If you start a serious conversation they walk away or start doing something else to get out of it 
  • Dismiss your concerns  as if they are unimportant
  • Make fun of you and patronise what you say when you speak 
  • Roll their eyes or refuse to make eye contact at all 
  • Refuse to take responsibility for giving you the silent treatment

What is the effect of stonewalling on a relationship?

Stonewalling has a very destructive effect on a relationship. As a very negative form of communication, it breaks down any intimacy in a relationship leading partners to withdraw from each other. This can easily lead to couples leading very separate lives without any shared activities or interests. 

What is the effect on the person who is being stonewalled? 

Feeling hurt, angry, confused and frustrated are some of the emotions a person being stonewalled may feel. When someone is being frequently dismissed or ignored, they can begin to devalue themselves which leads to feelings of being helpless, worthless and powerless. This is a natural response particularly as stonewalling is considered a form of gaslighting. 

People may find they become confused, dependent and weak making it difficult for them to leave the relationship or they become very angry and leave as quickly as they can. Either way, they may need to seek professional counselling support to heal from the experience. 

What is the impact on the person who is stonewalling? 

There is no winner as far as stonewalling in a relationship is concerned.  The person who is stonewalling also suffers as they are denying themselves the emotional intimacy that can make people really happy. Cutting off from your feelings, withdrawing from social situations and intimacy will make you and your partner miserable.  This is just one of the emotional effects of stonewalling.

Is stonewalling a form of emotional abuse?

It is clear that stonewalling is a harmful behaviour in a relationship but is it abusive? 

To answer this, it depends on the intent of the person who is doing the abusing. For example, there are many people for whom stonewalling is a learnt response to cope with emotional and difficult issues. They do not want to control or manipulate but instead use it (usually without realising) as a way to protect themselves from feeling uncomfortable. 

But this is not always the case and that is when stonewalling is used as something intentionally and abusive. In these situations, people use it to fight for control in the relationship and often use it alongside tactics such as gaslighting to make their partner feel useless, confused and powerless.  Sometimes referred to as narcissistic stonewalling, it means one person blames the other for all of the issues in the relationship but refuses to fix them. 

Is the silent treatment manipulation?

Like stonewalling, it is the intent behind the use of silent treatment that defines if it is manipulative behaviour. Storming out of an argument or conversation and then deliberating ignoring them for hours, days even weeks is very unhealthy for relationships; leaving the other person not knowing what they have done. 

This is very different from when a partner asks for some time to cool down and find space to collect their emotions during an argument. 

What does stonewalling /  silent treatment do to a relationship?

When used as a tool to manipulate stonewalling / the silent treatment is destructive. It breaks down the ability to communicate and collaborate with each other. It allows the silent person to transfer attention to appeasing them instead of dealing with the real issues. A regular pattern of this behaviour can be both toxic and abusive

How can you address stonewalling? 

If stonewalling is in your relationship you need to become very aware of what is happening and why.

If you both want a healthy, happy relationship you both need to take responsibility for your behaviour and try to empathise with each other.

There are tips outlined below on how improving communication and counselling can help if you are both willing to make changes. 

However, if this is part of a larger emotional abuse issue it is extremely important you take professional advice. The National Domestic Abuse Helpline run by Refuge can be contacted on 0808 2000 247. 

If you or anyone else is in danger please call the police immediately. 

What can you do if someone is stonewalling you? 

If you recognise that your partner is stonewalling you it is useful to take some time to look at both of your behaviours in the relationship. Understanding what motivates both of your behaviours can help to identify what changes can be made to help. 

However, it is important that your partner takes responsibility for their stonewalling behaviour. 

Working with a professional counsellor can help you both make a real difference to your self-esteem, confidence and communication skills. 

Simple but effective ways of dealing with difficult feelings and situations can also help. Try starting a discussion with “I” statements rather than “you”. This makes it much less threatening as “you” can put people on the defensive. 

What can you do if you realise you are stonewalling someone? 

If you did not realise the impact of stonewalling on your partner but you do now and want to change, being willing to admit you stonewall without blaming your partner is a big first step forward. 

Now you are aware of your behaviour, examine the motives behind it. Understanding why can help you to change your responses and behaviours.  

When communicating with your partner moving forward, work on your listening skills and look at the discussion as a way to solve a problem rather than a contest or proving a point. 

Think about things from your partner’s point of view. Even if you do not agree, listening will make your partner feel heard. And be empathic, put yourself in your partner’s shoes and see their point of view. 

And share how you feel, are you defensive? Upset because? Being vulnerable and explaining your emotions and why you feel them helps communication between you both.  

What if they are unwillingly to change their stonewalling behaviour?  

If your partner is unwilling to change or you are suffering from emotional abuse it is important that you make our emotional and physical safety a priority. Any form of abuse is harmful and can escalate. 

Please talk to someone and seek out professional help. Below is a list of support agencies.

Get in touch

If you would like any advice on divorce or other family law issues please do contact our Client Care Team to speak to one of our specialist divorce lawyers. 

Useful contacts

  • National Domestic Violence Helpline – 0808 2000 247
  • The Men’s Advice Line, for male domestic abuse survivors – 0808 801 0327
  • The Mix, free information and support for under 25s in the UK – 0808 808 4994
  • National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline – 0800 999 5428
  • Samaritans (24/7 service) – 116 123

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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As the UK's largest family law firm we understand that every case is personal.

Comments(17)

  1. b says:

    Do you have anything on stonewalling and autism in relationships and how to deal with it?

    • Sally Shakespeare says:

      Hi. Thanks for your question which I have passed to our Client Care team who may be able to help. Best wishes

  2. A says:

    Ghosting/Stonewalling in BPD & NPD relationship do you have any experience with it ?

    • Mary says:

      I am being stonewalled right now. He cheated on me with the help of his sister while I was pregnant. 2 years later we have made it work and he was treating me so good. That same sister came to town and I told him I don’t feel comfortable around her and with him visiting her. He fought with me mimicking everything I was telling him . He left the next two days at night to go be with her and his family. Then he had to work out of town so he still has not talked to me nor his kids just once through the ring camera . I don’t know what to do.

  3. N says:

    Is there any more advice for stone wallers who want to change?

    • T says:

      Put your arm around them and look into your eyes and talk to them until you are assured they are reassured and u can both be happy

      Some boyfriends won’t even admit there is a problem , at least your trying to understand. In a way I wish I could stone wall, probably would save a lot of heart ache on my side, sure I’d never get close to anyone, but I wouldn’t be repeatedly hurt

      Sorry, not helping

  4. Stitchedup says:

    This is something I endured from my ex from day one, the slightest disagreement and I would be stonewalled for days on end. It’s a shame the courts doesn’t recognize this as the abusive, corrosive behavior that it is when perpetrated by women.

  5. Marina says:

    I really like the message of your article because it is really important to realize in what state your relationship is now and take appropriate actions. Of course, a love relationship is a wonderful thing and any person in need of this because it fills us with magnificent emotions and makes us better. But despite this, any relationship is a really significant and serious process which requires a huge amount of work and not everything is always so careless and easy. Really often a relationship turns into turmoil and you don’t understand if you want to continue to be with your loved one, or you need to break up with him. I think that all mentioned signs are really meaningful and they all indicate that it is proper to end your relationship, but, for me, the crucial one is the lack of trust because relationships should be built on full trust, in another case it doesn’t make sense.

  6. Michelle says:

    My husband is doing this to me right now .I tell him things I hears see read ,but things are different different times but I know what I see and hear .I have been dismissed,called crazy especially he loves to try start a fight deflecting is his go to.He really don’t wanna hear me or listen .some ones messing with me I have lack of trust for my family as most things being done there has to be personal access to my phone including all my personal info .talking stops when I enter a room. All the signs are there this happened over night but he asks am I taking my meds which I went to a Dr with him for him so now my world’s upside down .I’m depressed my anxiety is awful I doubt my self but I know I’m right about the major things. I’m very depressed he don’t seem to care or be caring to me our relation ship is distancing this all changed over night 2 years ago after a 30 year relation ship .I’m not ready to give up on I think he’s hiding something I said I’d forgive him for anything I have lived a he’ll for 2 years that started abruptly for no reason a ton of girls texted my hubby out the blue .people aha e said things here n there I’m not sure what’s right or wrong but I do know there’s gotta be alot of money because no matter what way I go I’m blocked from my welfare to my lyft job things that should be so easy are now impossible I have no control I’m trapped in this he’ll he has no empathy just judgement anger when questioned .I feel like he’s guilty of something some reason I feel everyone knows but not 1 word 2 years I’m exhausted I’m heart broken depressed bad anxiety but I know what I say .100 percent I’d bet my life on it he keeps mentioning Schizophrenia. Oh it’s not that bad but I know I have caught his parents moving my shit .even him deleting my evidence my phones got some child lock I though but now I think it’s a major program that takes important people and money to pull this off it sounded like in the beginning it would end in a surprise for me he’s like no to everything my whole family’s living to me I don’t know what to do but I will always believe in my self I may of over reacted a few times jumped the gun but after so many things that go wrong it was easy to jump the gum but I’m mentally exhausted I’ve lost trust for all my friends and loved ones I’m just lost no end in site I feel it will all be blamed on me.i don’t even want it I wanna rewind 2 years n go bk to the man I love and used to trust with my life when we had nothing but each other .I distraught hurting and no one cares but I know what I’m seeing and it’s some one screwing with me hacked me stole my identity and I’m basically fighting my self I wanna give up please help if I go to therapy what do I say I can’t tell what’s real n what’s not even though I can help please

    • Sally Shakespeare says:

      Hi Michelle. Sorry you are going through such a difficult time. I will ask our Client Care Team to get in contact to see if we can help. Best wishes

  7. D says:

    Hi I am bipolar and I was stonewalled while my gf of a long time is away for 2weeks she gets mad hang up and tells m not to contact the rest of the day over minor things that were previously agreed upon this is the second occurrence and I basically have panic attacks for hours after initial no contact

    • Michelle says:

      I’m sorry your hurting it really stinks when people we love seem to distance them selves or want spas or in my case just flat out ignore what’s right in front of there own eyes.. I hope everything turns out OK for you .I know anxiety can hurt like nothing I have ever felt before. I live with it constantly. The worst feeling is the unknown.

  8. LLG says:

    Thank you very much for this article. Very helpful and insightful.

    Our wedding scheduled to take place in 24 days and I’m still dealing with this. He doesn’t understand how much it is impacting me and our relationship. I am now starting to question if we should even go through with the marriage. I have done and said mean things to him as well out of anger when we argue, but I process it and understand the importance of moving forward and forgiving each other when we have disagreements. Stonewalling seems to be his go to form of dealing with issues and I definitely feel less connected to him. We are doing the online pre-marital counseling, but maybe would benefit from talking with a live person and having some dialogue with a professional. Just watching the videos doesn’t seem to be helping much at all.

  9. Marisa says:

    I’m not allowed counseling for grief, due to what I have suffered and I’m not allowed communication with a lawyer. I am not allowed to find a small job for pay. I am not allowed due process. I am not allowed to discover why my divorce is still active after 21 years. I am not allowed to discuss what I am suffering with family. I am not allowed to sleep in a bedroom that dies not have a light flashing as if monitored. I am not allowed to discover why my ex husband is on my credit report along with his second and third ex wives. I can’t find a home to live in. There is always a reason that I cannot find a home. My phone calls are cut off: Mh previous lawyer ignored me and lies about having explained everything to me and returned my file as if an undisclosed party is running many aspects of my life without my knowledge and consent. My doctor ignored my request for counseling.

  10. Ruth says:

    I came across this article whilst trying to find information regarding ongoing stonewalling with regards to co-parenting. Historically and to date, I’ve received all above variations of stonewalling which initially led to the breakup of our relationship. Presently the main issue is that I’m still being constantly stonewalled and gaslighted due to co-parenting and regarding the needs of our child. We were not married so no divorce but he insisted he sees his son daily bar one on the weekend. This went on for several years and was horrendous for me causing significant stress and eventually a councillor reported him to SS. However, as a consequence visits were reduced but I am still continually stonewalled and it’s taking its toll on me as now our child is displaying similar behaviours and I am having to fight to be heard regarding small and large areas of importance for eg our so has recently been diagnosed Autistic and he won’t accept or discuss it. Blames my parenting for any issue that arises. Won’t follow elimination diets suggested by doctor, lies to doctors to down play any concerns regarding our child’s physical and mental health and tries to blame it on me. What can I do it’s mentally exhausting and I want to be at my best for my so to counter the lies and manipulation that he also receives. I just want it to stop now.

  11. Patricia says:

    My partner says I stonewall him, he told me this term as I hadn’t heard of it before. And yes I very much do, not with intent or to hurt or punish him, but out of hurt towards myself, when I hear things that don’t seem true or feel that it doesn’t sound like it’s very positive towards me, I shut down and go down this very dark rabbit hole of pain. I wish I could explain in words the pain and hurt I’m feeling in that moment, or have the ability to ask him to explain what he means or why he has just said that, but I can’t and I completely break down. Now I’m stonewalled or gaslighting. I have so much hurt, and wish there was more positive feedback coming my way, I feel like I’ll never be good enough or I’m always doing something not quite write or wrong.

  12. Richard says:

    I need an attorney I had a gift for a billions of dollars stolen from mean by members of the Seattle FBI since it’s such a large amount they believe that no one will believe me help me or do anything about it the way they’re going about this it’s fucked up when I called them they hang up on me when I sent reports I delete them know I gets back to me ignore me completely Stonewalled

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