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

Article updated June 2024

What is stonewalling?

Stonewalling happens when someone refuses to communicate with another person, essentially becoming unresponsive like a stone wall, sometimes called the silent treatment.

Stonewalling can also involve frequently dismissing or belittling what the other person says or accusing them of overreacting, all while the stonewaller insists that there’s no problem.

In romantic relationships, stonewalling can be a means of control used to deliberately cut off communication and refuse to cooperate. This tactic prevents resolving issues or making important decisions about the 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?

In a relationship, stonewalling punishes a partner for something they have done or are perceived to have done. This silent reaction often stems from the unrealistic expectation that their partner should know what is wrong without them even saying it.

Unintentional stonewalling can develop 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.

It 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.

Intentional stonewalling is a more threatening behaviour. It is used with intent, often in an attempt to dominate the relationship. By refusing to address any issues they invalidate their partner’s experience and prevent the other person from having clarity, taking action or moving forward.

How to recognise stonewalling

It’s likely that you may not realise 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.

Common signs of stonewalling 

  • 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 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?

While stonewalling has the biggest impact on those being stonewalled, the person who is stonewalling also suffers. By shutting down emotionally and obstructing genuine connection, they deprive themselves of the fulfillment that comes from a mutually supportive relationship, diminishing their own potential for happiness. This behavior damages their relationship with their partner, obstructs problem-solving, and increases conflict, perpetuating the cycle of unresolved issues and 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 relationsh

ip 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.

Mediation, counselling and improving communication can help, provided 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.

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 could 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.

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, work on your listening skills and look at the discussion as a way to solve a problem rather than proving a point.

Be as open as you can about your feelings. Being vulnerable and explaining how you feel will help to improve communication between you both.

What if your partner is unwilling to stop stonewalling?

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 organisations.

Get in touch with Stowe Family Law

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

Useful links:

Understanding coercive control and what you can do about it

Lost sense of self: Seven signs you are in a relationship with a narcissist

The cost-of-living in an abusive relationship

What is tech abuse?

What is economic abuse?

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.

Contact us

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

Comments(25)

  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.

      • jamie says:

        hi mary i dont know what to tell you but i feel that i have done the same in the past & i now no how much i have hurt all the women that i have done this to.
        i feel now that my eyes are now wide open on this & swear that i will never do this to anyone ever again.
        i hope trhat your partner opens his eye very soon for you & your kids,wishing you all well take care jamie

  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.

    • Jamie M Reed says:

      Sounds lk an emotional ly unavailable man.Fear of conflict cuz u may leave if u fight.He dnt know how cope w feelings.

  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

  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

  13. Rose says:

    My husband stonewalls me pretty often and even the kids growing up and now as adults. They don’t want nothing to do with him. During the work day he will be good, will talk a couple of times. Then I get home from work, start supper ( already ill because it’s not what he wants and total silent treatment. All night. I would ask are you mad he would say no. This happens too often and I am so over it and done. I have dealt with a lot and always ask myself “ why am I still here?”

    • Rhea says:

      How does your kids turned out growing up with their fathers behavior like that?

      My kids are still young, my youngest is only 3. I don’t really know which one is the right thing to say. My husband stone walls all us when we had a fight. The maximum was 11 days in the past. I am going through it for 5 days again. My kids know he is just in the mancave. I don’t know if I will keep letting them knock to say hi, bye, goodnight, godmorninh daddy” by the mancave door and get no response. My 1st grade might end up copying it thinking it is fine no matter how I much I tell him he should not do it when he already have his own family. Daddy has PTSD so he is going through something, but it’s not an excuse. 7 days before Christmas and we are like this. I’m seeing in my fb memories that there is a pattern.. 2016, 2018, 2019.. we are in the same situation. We will have an argument then he will stone wall me, the kids, and the dogs for days. I really don’t know where is this going.. my comment..

  14. Paul says:

    Due to personal issues including parental bereavements in past two years during which after seeing my mother die I gave up my longstanding profession to move in with my father and care for him 24/7 to avoid him going into care until he died. Consequently I have gone from being sole provider for my own family for decades to being separated but still fully providing. However whilst I was a professional with very good salary I’m now not working due to medically certified mental health (severe anxiety and depression) and some other physical health issues such as 3 TIA episodes (cardio and neuro).
    I still provide fully through using all my savings, however I sometimes go silent when asked for more or blamed for the significant reduction in overall funds.
    I’ve always respected my wife’s decision to stop working 20 years ago as she wanted to fully focus on bringing our children up. Never the less the pressure upon me has contributed to a lot my issues. I’m not a victim nor abused, but reading the article I wondered if there was any deeper insight into the legal considerations when stonewalling is linked to mental health ?

  15. Carey says:

    My family has been stonewalling me for 9 years now, and this come right at the time my father died and our inheritances were beginning to be distributed, so I thought. Turns out I had a huge inheritance that my sister stole back in 1998 and another in 2004 and then one in 2010 that my mom and uncle stole and then another in 2017 where I was also listed as an executor but my older sister got a restraining order under false pretenses then filed an amended will after his death and it now said she was allowed to do whatever she wanted with the money ( just her, there’s 4 of us) and next thing you know she has a ton of money wrapped in a living trust. This comes after her Mormon ritual of baptizing the dead when my father already dead but reincarnated as a spirit gave her permission during the baptismal ritual to do what she did. She has literally ruined my life hooked into Personal IRAs bank accounts etc. I am now forced to get a forensic accountant as they have even sold things at auction under my name leaving me to deal with the tax burden but as if I’m attempting to defraud the country because I neglect to report it. It is so bad and she has literally been living as me and her for almost 25 years all the bad things is me and the good things she takes credit for . I literally had someone tell me I just needed to let her be me and I could be the older sister now and things would just all be better. She is psycho crazy and literally can’t stop modeling in my life. 30 years of intentionally not inviting me hiding mail from important family so they think I don’t care not inviting me to get togethers then making up horrible stories as to why I guess I just didn’t show up. Please help.

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