One of the keys to a long, happy relationship is knowing how to communicate. While some may see arguing as unhealthy, it’s actually been found to benefit relationships—that is, when both parties know the most productive ways to argue. There are, of course, dozens of less ideal ways to argue, including the act of disengaging—sometimes known as stonewalling .
As Matt Lundquist, psychotherapist and founder and clinical director at Tribeca Therapy, tells Bustle, “Stonewalling is a full-on refusal to engage in a difficult conversation, a dispute, or in response to someone expressing hurt or a need.”
Licensed marriage and family therapist Dr. Racine Henry, of Sankofa Therapy NYC agrees, noting stonewallers often have a “purposefully blank and quiet response to a person’s expressed emotion.”
There are certain instances where disengaging can be healthy — for example, if the conversation isn’t going anywhere or if someone has been abusive — but overall stonewalling is a defensive technique that can be abusive if done with malicious intent. Below, learn more about stonewalling, the emotional toll it can exact, and how to communicate with a partner who stonewalls.
The Emotional Effects Of Stonewalling Abuse
Stonewalling can have a massive impact on relationships — so much so that it’s considered to be one of the “silent killers” that can lead to divorce.
“For individuals who had a rejecting or withholding parent, or an absent parent, stonewalling can conjure difficult experiences from the past,” Lundquist explains, since dredging up traumatic memories can be painful. “Even aside from this, its present-moment effect can be severe,” he adds. For example, rather than argue or attempt to understand their partner’s feelings, stonewallers will shut down and refuse to go forward in the conversation, which is detrimental to both parties, as no issues can be resolved.
For someone on the receiving end of stonewalling, purposefully abusive or otherwise, the “checking out” of their partner during an important conversation can be perceived as abandonment. The lack of emotional reciprocation can also cause self-doubt or insecurity. Dr. Henry adds that being stonewalled can make someone feel “anxious, angry, invalidated, or isolated in their experience or a situation” because they are interacting with someone who is purposefully not acknowledging their feelings in a discussion.
Recognizing the signs of stonewalling in your partner is important for working through these issues together, or realizing you may need to leave the relationship entirely.
So what does it look like in practice? “Largely, I think of stonewalling as a refusal to engage—not responding to questions or texts or invitations to work through things, not making clear to the other person that they’re hurt and why,” Lundquist says. He notes that while stonewalling can be a defensive technique to protect oneself from difficult feelings and situations, it can also be abusive if you’re using it to intentionally hurt your significant other.
Dr. Henry explains that stonewalling can appear as complete silence in a relationship or phrases like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” “There’s no way that happened,” or “I would never do or say anything like that.” Basically, a cold shoulder or dismissive statements could be signs of stonewalling.
Stonewalling Vs. Gaslighting Differences
Gaslighting is a form of abuse where someone tries to manipulate someone else into questioning their own reality. Lundquist explains that stonewalling can become an “implicit form of gaslighting” when someone refuses to engage in a conversation in order to intentionally make another person feel unreasonable or not grounded in reality. If stonewalling is done as a punishment, it can make your partner feel ignored and manipulated, which can significantly impact your relationship.
According to Dr. Henry, a major difference between stonewalling and gaslighting is the intention behind the action. “The difference between gaslighting and stonewalling is that gaslighting involves trying to convince the other person of a different reality than the one they have experienced,” she explains. “Stonewalling can be more about shutting down to avoid confrontation or to hurt the other person’s feelings. Stonewalling is more of a defense mechanism rooted in protecting the stonewaller’s feelings. Gaslighting is often more deliberate and manipulative in nature.”
How To Respond To Stonewalling In A Relationship
When it comes to dealing with stonewalling in a relationship, Dr. Henry recommends making your feelings clear to your partner. “Make it plain to the stonewaller how their lack of engagement impacts [you] and outline what [you] need from them instead.”
If they refuse to make these changes, she says it’s important to respond right away, and suggests you may need to end the relationship.
In the immediate moment, however, Lundquist says you should disengage from the argument and, when stating your feelings, avoid accusatory language, like using the term stonewalling, as this can put your partner on the defensive and start an unnecessary argument.
After you both have had a chance to calm down, Lundquist echoes Dr. Henry. “Let them know you won't tolerate it, that it's a bigger deal to you than they may realize and they need to find another way to deal with hard conversations.”
For someone who is prone to stonewalling, Lundquist says identifying this tendency in yourself is about being honest about your intent. Ask yourself hard questions like, “Was I silent because I was scared and needed space or was I punishing my partner?” Knowing your motives can help you better understand how to fix your stonewalling habit moving forward.
Thankfully, if both partners take the necessary steps to improve their communication, it can ultimately strengthen the relationship.
Matt Lundquist, psychotherapist
Racine Henry, PhD, licensed marriage and family therapist