Stonewalling: What It Is and How to Save Your Relationship

You’ve probably heard the term “stonewalling,” but what exactly does it mean when it comes to relationships? Here’s a little background: 

Clinical psychologist John Gottman coined the term “the four horsemen,” widely used to describe couples in “apocalyptic” conditions or who are barreling towards divorce. The four horsemen are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Each of these communication challenges and responses can cause major problems in your relationships, romantic or otherwise. While the first three are pretty self-explanatory, there’s often a lot of uncertainty around what stonewalling actually entails. 

Here’s what happens: when someone stonewalls, they completely shut down and tune out conversations. If your partner is stonewalling you, they might become totally silent during arguments or conflict. It’s almost like they’re tuning out anything you say while categorically dismissing all of your concerns. 

So, why would someone resort to stonewalling? Normally, it’s a partner’s response to “psychological flooding.” They build a metaphorical wall between themselves and their partner when they’re feeling overwhelmed as a way to avoid conflict. Needless to say, it’s incredibly unhealthy. It can cause partners to feel frustrated, dismissed, and on edge. Most of the time, stonewalling is an unintentional defense mechanism. Other times, it’s considered a type of verbal abuse if the stonewaller is using it to be manipulative or make their partner feel insignificant. 

If you are in a relationship with a stonewaller, here are a few tips you can use to improve the communication in your relationship:

Ask for a Break During Conflicts 

A big reason for stonewalling is feeling overwhelmed during conflict. It’s natural to shut down sometimes during an argument, but that doesn’t make it the best option. If you sense your partner starting to tune you out, suggest a break in the conversation. Take time to collect your thoughts and emotions, and revisit the discussion when you’re both in the right mindset. 

Remember, this doesn’t mean step away from the argument and sweep it under the rug! (That causes a whole new bunch of issues!) It’s important to always go back to the conversation and find a resolution.

Acknowledge That You Are Not the “Fixer’ in the Relationship

If your partner is constantly stonewalling, you may feel as if it is your job to bring up or address conflict when it arises because you doubt your partner will do it. While, yes, it’s necessary to talk about issues, it’s not your job to initiate it every time.  

Try not to think of yourself as the “fixer” in your relationship. Eventually, all that one-sided effort will lead you to resent your partner, ultimately derailing any chance of staying together. The stonewaller needs to acknowledge their behavior and work on making a change to restore balance in the relationship. 

Lead With Empathy

While your partner’s stonewalling is never your fault, you should still understand that it’s often a response to extreme criticism or contempt as defined by John Gottman. If you find that you’re starting an argument with criticism or defensiveness, your partner might feel as though you’re “coming after them.” 

Try approaching the topic with empathy. Instead of pointing out what they did wrong, express your emotions and try to see things from their point of view. Creating an empathetic and safe space to discuss your problems will lead to better discussion. If you want to prevent stonewalling from ruining your relationship, for both of you to recognize how your actions are detrimental. 

Trust Yourself

If you’re at the receiving end of stonewalling all the time, you may start to believe your feelings aren’t valid or you’re being irrational. After all, if you don’t get any feedback during a conversation, it’s easy to start doubting your feelings. You may begin to ask yourself questions like, “Is there really any reason to be mad?” or “Am I blowing things out of proportion?” 

Rather than letting them get inside your head, trust your gut! You know when you’re being totally unreasonable, right? (Usually, at least.) Remember that your intuitions and emotions are valid and have every right to be heard by your partner. Having conviction in your feelings will also inspire you to readdress problems that are not resolved due to stonewalling.

Prioritize Self-Care

Being stonewalled is frustrating, to say the least. While working it out communication issues with your partner is the ultimate goal, it’s also necessary to focus on you. Although you can’t control your partner, you can control your own behavior, and that should always include making time for self-care. If your partner doesn’t seem to validate your feelings, you can turn inward and reflect on why you might be feeling the way you do. It’s also helpful to turn to a friend or family member that can offer advice from an outside perspective. 

Instead of dwelling on your partner’s actions, you can try some self-care activities: partaking in your favorite hobby, going on a walk to clear your head, journaling, yoga, or meditation, as a few examples. Anything that helps you feel relaxed and good about yourself!

Talk to a Professional at Relish

At the end of the day, consistent stonewalling is something that needs to be addressed in a relationship because it prevents healthy, necessary communication. If addressing it on your own doesn’t seem to be helping, you can always turn to a seasoned professional. It doesn’t have to be traditional, expensive therapy, either! 

If you’re determined to save your relationship from the pitfalls of stonewalling, you can consider turning to Relish, a relationship coaching app. It’s a less expensive, more modern way of getting professional relationship advice. The professional relationship coaches at Relish are trained to help you navigate communication issues in your relationship, including stonewalling and the criticism that often precipitates stonewalling. The relationship coaches help you and your partner evaluate your relationship, set goals and move towards achieving those goals with manageable, actionable plans.

If stonewalling is plaguing your relationship, there’s still a chance you can work through it! With some dedication, self-reflection, and improved communication skills, you and your partner can get back on track to reestablishing the happiness you both deserve.