Article updated August 2023
What is stonewalling?
Stonewalling occurs when one person refuses to communicate with another. The definition of stonewalling describes the act of becoming like a stone wall and is sometimes referred to as the silent treatment.
Stonewalling behaviour can also include regularly dismissing or belittling what another person says or accusing them of overreacting while the stonewaller insists there are no problems.
In romantic relationships, stonewalling is often used to control a partner by deliberately cutting off communication and refusing cooperation. This hinders or prevents the ability to overcome issues or make key decisions about their future.
The two types of stonewalling
Stonewalling behaviour falls into two distinct categories:
Unintentional stonewalling: withholding communication can be a learned behaviour used by partners to deal with tough or sensitive topics, or to defuse a conversation and prevent it from escalating.
Intentional stonewalling: used deliberately, intentional stonewalling is an effective method used by emotionally abusive or controlling partners to exploit or manipulate a situation, gain power over their partner, and often deliberately demean them.
What is stonewalling in a relationship?
For some, stonewalling in a relationship 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.
It can happen when couples fall out of the habit of discussing their emotions, or when someone is unsure of what they are feeling so feel it’s easier to say nothing. Similarly, if a relationship has run its course, stonewalling can be used to create distance from a partner.
Stonewalling can be a learned behaviour, often a result of being brought up in an environment where feelings were never discussed, or where emotional conversations were met with negative reactions. Into adulthood, this can become a habit and impact relationships. For some people talking about emotions and feelings can make them feel incredibly uncomfortable and avoidance is a preferable route.
The more sinister side of stonewalling is when it is used with intent, often in an attempt by a partner to dominate the relationship. By refusing to address any issues they prevent the other person from having clarity, preventing them from taking action or moving forward.
How to recognise stonewalling
It’s likely that you may not realise that you are being stonewalled. Equally, people who stonewall may be unaware that they are subjecting their partner to stonewalling abuse, particularly if it’s unintentional.
The starting point is to look at your and your partners behaviours over a period of time. Observe the way you each respond to conversations. Take notes in a diary over time to see if patterns emerge.
Listed below are some of the common signs of stonewalling in a relationship.
Common signs of stonewalling
Stonewalling can be subtle making it difficult to spot the signs. It’s also likely that you’ve become used to this pattern of behaviour from your partner so might not recognise that you are being stonewalled.
Signs you’re being stonewalled include:
- Your partner deliberately ignores what you say
- To avoid serious conversations, they change the subject or walk away
- They make up reasons not to talk
- When asked questions, they refuse to respond
- Making allegations rather than discussing the current issue
- Using dismissive body language such as eye rolling or avoiding eye contact
- Using passive-aggressive behaviours such as stalling or procrastination to avoid discussions
- Refusing to recognise their stonewalling behaviour
- Dismissing your concerns as if they are unimportant
- When you speak they make fun of you and patronise what you say
- Refusing to take responsibility or blaming you for their silent treatment
What effect does stonewalling have on a relationship?
Stonewalling in relationships is destructive. It contributes to a breakdown of trust, inhibits communication, and it creates a power imbalance between partners. Over time, this can lead to couples leading unhappy or separate lives.
What is the effect on the person being stonewalled?
The emotional effects of stonewalling include a sense of helplessness, worthlessness, and powerlessness. It can have a serious impact on a person’s self-esteem. This is a natural response, particularly as stonewalling is widely considered a form of gaslighting.
Some people being stonewalled may find they become confused, dependent, and even submissive, making it difficult for them to leave the relationship.
Stonewalling creates a vicious circle, where the person who is stonewalling refuses to discuss matters that are central to the relationship, thereby making matters worse. As frustration rises, discussions can escalate into arguments, deepening tensions and leaving issues unresolved.
What is the impact on the person who is stonewalling?
There is no winner as far as stonewalling in a relationship is concerned. While stonewalling has the biggest impact on those being stonewalled, the person who is stonewalling also suffers. By denying themselves the sense of emotional intimacy that comes from a truly collaborative relationship, they limit their opportunity for happiness. Cutting off from their feelings, damaging their relationships with their partner, and preventing resolutions and progress, will only increase conflict. And with it, the need for future discussions.
Is stonewalling a form of emotional abuse?
Stonewalling is a harmful behaviour in a relationship but is it abusive?
This depends on the intent of the person who is stonewalling. 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 (often without realising) to keep the peace or protect themselves from feeling uncomfortable.
However, when stonewalling is used as a deliberate means of manipulating a partner or exploiting a situation, it constitutes abusive behaviour. Often combined with other forms of emotional abuse, such as gaslighting, the intention is to increase their control in the relationship.
Sometimes referred to as narcissistic stonewalling, it often means one person falsely blames the other for all of the issues in the relationship while refusing 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 or 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 or silent treatment do to a relationship?
When used as a tool to manipulate, the effect of stonewalling or the silent treatment is destructive for couples. It breaks down the ability to communicate openly and honestly, and prevents collaboration with each other, both key to a healthy relationship. A regular pattern of this behaviour can be both toxic and abusive.
How to deal with stonewalling
If stonewalling is a factor in your relationship, it’s best to be honest with yourself and be aware of what is happening and why.
If you and your partner are willing to make changes to restore a healthy, happy relationship you both need to listen, take responsibility for your behaviour, and work together to overcome the issues.
However, if this is part of a larger emotional abuse issue it is extremely important you take professional advice.
If you or anyone else is in danger please call the police immediately.
How to respond to stonewalling
Knowing how to respond to stonewalling can be difficult. By its nature, stonewalling means that others avoid difficult conversations, which might make talking about your concerns a challenge.
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 each of you, and the objectives of your behaviour, can help you to identify what changes can be made to help.
However, it is important that your partner also takes responsibility for their stonewalling behaviour and is willing to participate resolving matters on an equal level.
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 were unaware of the impact of your behaviour on your partner and are willing to make changes to improve your relationship, taking responsibility without blaming your partner is a big first step.
Reflect on times you refused communication, examine your motives and behaviour, and how that may have made your partner feel. Understanding this can help you to see things from your partner’s perspective and establish how you can adjust 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.
Be as open as you can about your feelings. Being vulnerable and explaining your emotions and why you feel will help to improve 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 your emotional and physical safety a priority. Any form of abuse is unacceptable.
Please talk to someone and seek out professional help. Below is a list of support agencies.
Get in touch with Stowe Family Law
- 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
- Galop, National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline – 0800 999 5428
- Samaritans (24/7 service) – 116 123