What Is Stonewalling In Relationships?

What Is Stonewalling And Why It Ruins Relationships? The Silent Treatment Explained.

What Is Stonewalling In Relationships?
What Is Stonewalling In Relationships?

Stonewalling is a destructive communication pattern in relationships where one partner completely shuts down and withdraws during conflict. This “silent treatment” can deeply damage intimacy, trust, and connection between couples. Understanding the psychology behind stonewalling and learning techniques to overcome it are crucial for restoring healthy communication.

Stonewalling typically happens when conflict arises and one partner feels overwhelmed. They abruptly stop communicating to avoid an uncomfortable conversation. This leaves their partner confused, hurt, and increasingly frustrated as their concerns remain unresolved. The stonewaller disengages emotionally and physically, shutting their partner out. They may give short, dismissive responses or ignore them altogether. This “silent treatment” sends the message: “your feelings don’t matter to me”. The partner feels invalidated and the relationship dynamic becomes emotionally unsafe. Resentment builds on both sides, creating distance and disconnection.

What Causes Stonewalling?

Stonewalling stems from an inability or unwillingness to engage, listen, and empathize during conflict. There are several key reasons someone might stonewall their partner:

Emotional Flooding

When we feel emotionally flooded during conflict, we can experience a “fight, flight or freeze” response. Stonewalling is a “freeze” response for some people when they feel overwhelmed by their partner’s criticism or complaints. They withdraw to create distance and avoid feeling attacked.

Avoidant Attachment

People with an avoidant attachment style often struggle with emotional intimacy in relationships. They are uncomfortable with vulnerability and rely heavily on self-sufficiency. During conflict, they are prone to stonewalling to regain their sense of independence.

Learned Behavior

Stonewalling can become an entrenched pattern if one witnessed it growing up. Children internalize their parents’ communication habits even when unhealthy. Without intervention, these behaviors transfer into adulthood and romantic relationships.

Power Struggle

Some partners use stonewalling as a passive-aggressive power play to avoid accountability, withhold affection, or punish their partner during conflict. This manipulation tactic breeds resentment and contempt in the relationship.


Partners who stonewall may feel insecure about articulating their feelings, needs, or opinions openly. They withdraw to avoid saying “the wrong thing”. This self-silencing stems from fear of judgement, vulnerability, or loss of control in the relationship.

What Is Stonewalling In Relationships?
What Is Stonewalling In Relationships?

The Emotional Impact of Stonewalling

Being stonewalled takes a significant emotional toll on the partner seeking connection and communication. Common feelings include:

  • Confusion: Not understanding why their partner suddenly shut down emotionally.
  • Invalidation: Feeling unheard, unimportant, even worthless when their partner disengages.
  • Rejection: Interpreting stonewalling as a personal affront or sign their partner doesn’t care.
  • Loneliness: The absence of intimacy, support, and partnership during conflict.
  • Anxiety: Obsessing over what they did to cause their partner’s withdrawal and how to regain their engagement.
  • Anger: Extreme frustration with a partner who refuses to communicate or work through issues together.
  • Hopelessness: After repeated stonewalling, the partner feels the relationship will never change.

Over time, these unresolved feelings accumulate into resentment, mistrust, and emotional detachment from the relationship. The partner of the stonewaller becomes increasingly unhappy and guarded to protect themselves.

The Effects of Stonewalling on Relationships

Stonewalling corrodes the foundation of a healthy relationship in several key ways:

Deterioration of Emotional Intimacy

Partners feel disconnected when stonewalled repeatedly. The stonewaller doesn’t express their inner world, and the other partner doesn’t feel safe being vulnerable. This breakdown in communication destroys intimacy.

Breakdown in Trust

Stonewalling breaks the fundamental agreement that partners will face conflict together. Over time, the partner feels they can no longer rely on their stonewalling partner for support during difficult times.

Negative Conflict Patterns

When one partner stonewalls, the other often escalates their demands for engagement. This creates unhealthy dynamics like the “pursuer-distancer” pattern or “criticism-contempt” cycle. Conflict devolves instead of being resolved.

Lack of Accountability

The partner doing the stonewalling often avoids taking responsibility for their role in issues. This creates resentment and a sense of unfairness. Partners become locked in a victim-blame cycle.

Risk of Infidelity or Divorce

Research shows stonewalling is strongly correlated with eventual cheating or divorce if the pattern persists without intervention. Partners who don’t feel heard or cared for will eventually seek those needs outside the marriage.

How To Overcome Stonewalling: Tips To Improve Communication

If you recognize stonewalling behaviors in yourself or your partner, take steps now to address this toxicity before it further damages your bond. With commitment to change, stonewalling can be overcome.

For the Stonewalling Partner

  • Get to the root cause: Reflect on what emotions or fears trigger you to shut down. Are you feeling flooded, insecure, or avoidant? Uncover your stonewalling roots.
  • Learn coping techniques: When you feel overwhelmed, try deep breathing, taking a timeout to collect yourself, or journaling before reacting. Regulate your emotions in a healthy way.
  • Practice vulnerability: Instead of withdrawing, learn to share your feelings and needs. Let your partner emotionally support and reassure you.
  • Take responsibility: Apologize for the impact of your stonewalling instead of playing the victim. Commit to staying engaged.
  • Get professional help: If your stonewalling is severe, seek counseling to uncover its origins and learn healthier communication tools.

For the Partner of a Stonewaller

  • Don’t retaliate: As frustrating as stonewalling is, avoid escalating the conflict further through criticism, contempt, or aggression. It will only drive them further away.
  • Speak gently: When asking your partner to open up, use a soft, non-confrontational approach. Too much pressure will cause more withdrawal.
  • Set boundaries: Calmly explain that stonewalling is unacceptable and you need agreed-upon rules for conflict resolution. If they refuse, walk away temporarily.
  • Validate yourself: Your feelings are real and important, even if your partner can’t empathize in the moment. Seek support from trusted friends or family.
  • Suggest counseling: A therapist can help you and your partner overcome unhealthy communication patterns and express your needs more constructively.

The Bottom Line: Communication and Compromise

Stonewalling leaves both partners feeling unheard, powerless, and uncared for. But it doesn’t have to mean the end of your relationship. The first step is understanding why it happens. From there, you can work as a team to heal. With compromise, vulnerability, and professional support, you can break the stonewalling cycle for good and build new patterns of healthy communication. This will allow you to reconnect with each other during conflict and come out stronger on the other side.

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