What is Stonewalling?

Is stonewalling manipulative?
on December 07, 2023
10 mins
by Terri Di Matteo

Everyone is familiar with the silent treatment. Whether you first employed it as a sulky child, or if you’ve been on the receiving end of it in a relationship, it’s a very formidable and frustrating tactic in all its forms. 

So, what is stonewalling? Even though stonewalling shares many similarities with the silent treatment, where someone builds up an icy and impenetrable exterior to block out their partner, the intent behind this behavior is what makes it so different. 

If you’ve been exposed to stonewalling tactics, it’s important to understand the intent behind this behavior and if it’s a red flag or not.  

Key Takeaways
  • Stonewalling is a total avoidance of communication with your partner, whereby you build a wall between you to escape a difficult conversation.
  • Stonewalling is often associated with the silent treatment, but the key thing that distinguishes these two behaviors is the intent behind it. For example, non-intentional stonewalling is a reactionary response, whereby someone retreats from the conversation as an act of self-preservation. This response is usually preceded by ‘flooding’, which is most common in men.
  • Intentional stonewalling could be viewed as a form of gaslighting, where it's utilized as a form of control to manipulate and belittle someone.
  • If you’re in a cycle of being stonewalled for your partner, it can hurt your mental health, and well-being, as well as your overall relationship satisfaction.
  • The antidote to stonewalling is located in additional communication, explaining to your partner why you’re seeking your own space to negate any negative consequences.

What is stonewalling in a relationship?

As the name implies, stonewalling involves building a wall between you and your partner, refusing to react or communicate with them in any way. 

“Stonewalling is withdrawing from interacting and keeping to one's self. It is when a partner or spouse turns away and doesn't engage,” says Terri Di Matteo, a licensed relationship and couple counselor at Open Door Therapy.

“It’s generally viewed as a self-protective measure when one feels overwhelmed with emotion and then shuts down.” 

This is considered to be unintentional stonewalling and is used as a coping mechanism amid more difficult conversations. In this case, it isn’t being done out of malice, but the person is simply retreating into themselves to calm down and process their emotions. 

According to research, this kind of response is signaled by increased heart rate, and a release of stress hormones into the body — triggering a fight or flight response. This results in one partner retreating into themselves to give themselves a mental time out from the situation. 

Stonewalling is becoming increasingly common, and according to a recent study by Dr. Gottman and Levenson, 85% of those who stonewall are male. Gottman's research revealed that males are less able physiologically to engage in relationship battles than women are. 

While unintentional stonewalling is considered a defense mechanism, it can escalate the other person’s emotional reaction, as they can’t get through to their stonewalling partner. 

“Men experience a powerful physiological overwhelm to arguments that Gottman has dubbed 'flooding',” says Di Matteo. 

“They can't take it! To help manage that they pull away — or 'stonewall' - to calm themselves down. Women often experience this as hurtful rejection.” 

Therefore, this emotional ‘flooding’ results in stonewalling in men, which can be very difficult for their partners to understand. This is why it’s so important to verbalize these behaviors, so there is a level of understanding as to why someone is pulling back — rather than just watching them storm off and being left feeling rejected and confused. 

While this is often considered the root cause of stonewalling in men, this emotional response is prevalent in both genders. 

Even though this is a common reason why people stonewall, there can be more sinister reasons behind shutting out your partner in this way. Intentional stonewalling (which is also known as the silent treatment) can be seen as a form of emotional abuse, whereby you intentionally ignore your partner to make them feel small or insignificant. 

How do you know if someone is stonewalling you?

Stonewalling behavior is pretty easy to spot as if you’re on the receiving end of this treatment, it’s very hard to miss! 

These behaviors usually arise after an argument or disagreement and are seen as reactionary to the issues at hand.  Instead of dealing with the situation productively, with honest communication and conflict resolution strategies, it’s seen as a way to run away from relationship problems. 

“They are disengaging, turning away, and keeping their own counsel,” says Di Matteo.

“You may feel them pulling away from you, walking away, or entering another room. The person creates emotional and physical distance.”

According to John Gottman’s research, stonewalling is considered to as of the ‘Four Horseman of the Apocalypse’ and is incredibly destructive behavior in romantic relationships — even if it begins as a self-preservation tactic. 

When your partner shifts their behavior towards you in such a drastic way, it can be very hard to know how to cope. In many cases, it can trigger a similarly checked-out reaction, as you wonder why would you bother trying to communicate at all! 

If this cycle continues, it can expand into more toxic relationship tendencies, where communication is allowed to break down and resentment to build up. 

What are the signs of stonewalling?

They walk out in the middle of a conversation.
They refuse to make eye contact or engage in any way.
Use of dismissive body language such as rolling their eyes.
Starts to act busy to avoid the conversation.
Interrupts you when you’re trying to start the conversation.
Says the conversation is ‘over’ even though you didn’t get to say your side.
Ignoring all your texts or calls.
Pretends not to hear you, completely blocking you out.

Is stonewalling manipulative? 

To know whether stonewalling is manipulative or toxic or not, it’s important to evaluate the intention behind this behavior. 

“One must know the intention to determine if an action or behavior is manipulative,” says Di Matteo. 

“For example, although stonewalling and silent treatment present in the same manner where the partner or spouse turns away, withdraws, and distances, stonewalling is viewed as a self-protective mechanism to manage overwhelming emotions. Though hurtful to a partner or spouse, that's not the person's intent. In contrast, the silent treatment intends to punish, dominate and hurt.”

Therefore, while non-intentional stonewalling is not manipulative, if you’re intentionally reacting in this way to control your partner — that’s manipulation. This kind of emotional abuse is commonly employed by narcissists to control their partner or punish them for disagreeing with them or stepping out of line. 

Stonewalling can be a very effective tool of manipulation, as while they’re blocking you out, you can find yourself overcompensating and ignoring your own needs to try and please them. As you try and break through their hard exterior, you put your own well-being and mental health on the line to try and ‘fix’ things. 

Therefore, depending on the examples of stonewalling in question, they can be considered as self-preservation or as part of a wider toxic dynamic. 

What is the difference between stonewalling and gaslighting?

There is a distinct difference between stonewalling and gaslighting, even though both of them can be considered forms of emotional abuse in certain contexts. 

“Stonewalling is when a person turns away and withdraws from connection,” says Di Matteo. 

“Gaslighting requires interaction where an abusive person presents a convincing, distorted view of reality to manipulate a person's sense of reality. It is a manipulation tool to destabilize a person, making them feel confused and unsure and questioning what they know to be accurate and objective. A confused person is easier to control and manipulate.”

Therefore, stonewalling can be a form of gaslighting if it’s used intentionally to make people question their reality — but they are not considered the same thing unless their intentions align. 

How does stonewalling affect people?

The effects of stonewalling can be very impactful on the individual and the couple in question, as it makes it impossible to sustain a healthy relationship if these patterns are repeated. 

“A person who experiences stonewalling can feel rejected, hurt, and unloved,” says Di Matteo. 

If you’re constantly being stonewalled by your partner, and feel that you can’t break through their icy exterior, it can be very damaging to your relationship satisfaction as well as your overall wellness. These walls that are erected act as a barrier to emotional intimacy, and make it difficult to resolve conflict productively. 

On the other side, if you’re the one who’s stonewalling your partner (as you can’t deal with difficult conversations), it can crush your confidence and self-esteem. 

Even though you’re stonewalling because you’re overwhelmed, being unable to communicate these feelings only serves to make things worse — with emotional and physical distance forming a chasm between you. 

Stonewalling also isn’t exclusive to romantic relationships, with some people experiencing this behavior from family members or friends. This serves to contaminate the relationship dynamic similarly, with everything being swept under the rug due to a refusal to engage in productive conversation. 

How to stop stonewalling in a relationship? 

Whether you’re the one being stonewalled, or you’re engaging in this behavior yourself, it’s an incredibly destructive pattern for your relationship and should be eliminated as a coping strategy. 

Relationships present a myriad of difficult conversations, but running away from them and blocking your partner out is only going to guarantee a negative outcome. 

Therefore, it’s important to come up with effective strategies to ensure you don’t end up stonewalling your partner as a reaction to becoming overwhelmed. 

To learn how to cope in healthy and productive ways, it’s important to seek professional help, whether through individual or couples therapy. These sessions can help you develop self-soothing tactics that don’t involve shutting your partner out. 

Whether you’ve chosen to pursue couples counseling or not, communication is the key to this conversation. 

“During a calm and connected time in the relationship, discuss it,” says Di Matteo. 

“The person who experienced the stonewalling can share the impact the partner's stonewalling has on them. They can let the one who withdraws know that when they pull away, it frightens them, leaving them feeling unloved and unsafe.” 

Even though opening up can seem scary, healthier horizons start by taking down those walls and by tackling the issue as a team with your loved one. However, this transition can be done in smaller steps — as you should still be allowed your personal space to process your emotions in a way that works for you. 

“Everyone sometimes feels overcome with emotion and pulls away to steady themselves,” says Di Matteo. 

“When a partner feels the need to withdraw, they must reassure their partner that while they need a moment to regroup, they still love their partner. They can add that after a specific amount of time to themselves, they look forward to reconnecting.” 

These additional steps remove the negative elements of the stonewalling tactic, while still allowing both partners time to think and process healthily and productively. 

“It might sound like this, "I wasn't expecting such a strong reaction. I need a half-hour to myself, then I'll return to you. When I return, we can revisit and discuss it. Rest assured, I love you very much. I need some time to process. I'll be back. A reassuring comment can make all the difference!” 

Taking the time to explain your emotional process eliminates the negative elements of stonewalling, as you’ve chosen to go about it respectfully and openly. 

Stonewalling is a mechanism that helps steady wound-up emotions,” says Di Matteo. 

“It's somewhat normal but can feel rejecting. Addressing the 'rejection' part of it can make all the difference.”

Ideally, with time, you can start to move towards more open communication and reap the benefits that come from effective conflict resolution strategies. 

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