What Is Stonewalling and How Does It Damange Your Relationship?

communication defense mechanisms Oct 13, 2021

Stonewalling is a psychological defense mechanism that’s often used by a member of a couple during conflict.

It can be especially destructive when used in conflict about financial matters in a relationship. This is because stonewalling essentially shuts down all communication about a topic.

Stonewalling makes partners feel emotionally overwhelmed and disrespected.

Once stonewalling is identified it can be overcome with specific strategies outlined in this blog. 

What Is Stonewalling?

Stonewalling is when one partner refuses to engage in a discussion. Rather than confronting the issue, people who stonewall will do things to ignore it or avoid it completely. 

Stonewalling is often a result of feeling physiologically flooded and overwhelmed. When someone gets physiologically flooded they feel overwhelmed by their emotions and unable to respond. They may not feel as though they can discuss things rationally. 

Signs of Stonewalling

The signs of stonewalling may include:

  • Silence.
  • Avoidance of the conversation.
  • Changing the subject.
  • Making accusations rather than talking about the problem.
  • Storming off.
  • Refusing to answer the other person's questions.
  • Unwillingness to discuss problems.
  • Unwillingness to listen to the other person.
  • Acting busy.
  • Turning away.
  • Distracting oneself.
  • Ignoring the other person.
  • Dismissive body language such as eye-rolling.

Causes

The causes for stonewalling vary from individual to individual.

The causes of stonewalling are not necessarily due to one partner wanting to hurt the other.

Some people engage in this type of communication because they feel like they have nothing else left to say. Others do so out of fear of being rejected or abandoned. Still, others use stonewalling when they're angry at themselves or someone else.

Causes of stonewalling include: 

  • Feeling hopeless about finding a resolution to the argument.
  • Believing their partner doesn't want to solve the conflict or wishes to continue the argument fruitlessly.
  • Wanting to reduce emotional tension.
  • Fear of where a talk may lead.
  • Fear of a partner's reaction or what will be said.
  • A belief that they do not have the resources or ability to handle the topic at hand.
  • A desire to avoid conflict.
  • Feeling that if a conflict is avoided it will just "go away".
  • A way to establish their partner as “emotional” or "irrational" and their stance as “neutral”.
  • A way of manipulating the situation so that the stonewaller gets their way.

Types of Stonewalling

 

Unintentional vs. Intentional

Unintentional stonewalling is a way that people may have learned to deal with difficult emotional issues in the past. They don't use stonewalling to hurt the other person. Rather, they use stonewalling because they don't know how to deal with the situation or their own emotions. These people may use stonewalling to minimize emotional overwhelm, to avoid an uncomfortable topic, or because they're afraid of their partner's reaction to the conflict. 

Intentional stonewalling is a more extreme example that is used to manipulate a partner, inflict punishment, or control a relationship. This type of stonewalling is often used to belittle, disrespect, demean, or control the other person. This is a type of verbal or psychological abuse and may need to be addressed in therapy. 

Behaviors Confused With Stonewalling

Asking for space is a legitimate way to deal with emotional overwhelm during a conflict. When one partner asks for space or time to cool off and to continue the conversation later they are not stonewalling. This is often an adaptive response if one partner feels flooded with emotion and is unable to respond in an effective and productive way at the moment. 

Another behavior that can be confused with stonewalling is setting boundaries. Setting boundaries includes things like setting rules around a conflict like only discussing it for 15 minutes at a time or keeping a respectful tone. Should one of these boundaries be violated one partner may withdraw from the conversation until both partners can agree on mutually beneficial boundaries again and continue the conversation. 

Impact on Relationships

Stonewalling can have a significant negative impact on relationships. The person who is stonewalled will often feel demeaned or disrespected and may even begin to question their self-worth. While the person who is stonewalling may feel overwhelmed and incapable of dealing with conflicts in the relationship. 

Shutting someone out escalates every confrontation within a relationship. This can lead to regrettable things being said.

Stonewalling is considered a key predictor of divorce.

One study indicated that stonewalling leads to physical problems such as musculoskeletal issues like muscle aches, neck pain, and back pain. 

Overcoming Stonewalling

The most important factor in overcoming stonewalling is to teach couples skills to better manage conflicts.

Stonewalling needs to be addressed as a couple. When the issue isn't dealt with as a couple, and instead focuses on the stonewaller, it doesn't help the couple learn better communication strategies as a whole. Furthermore, it does not foster emotional empathy, intimacy, and understanding.  This can lead to the person who is stonewalling feel blamed. Plus, other important issues within the relationship may be overlooked. 

It's important to understand why the stonewalling is taking place to foster emotional intimacy and empathy in the partnership. Then the couple may be able to identify behaviors that lead up to stonewalling. 

Learning communication skills to help overcome old ineffective communication habits can be extremely useful. I will be teaching communication skills as part of my upcoming course The Couples Guide to Financial Intimacy. If you or your partner struggle with stonewalling or other defense mechanisms when you communicate about money and your relationship, then I highly recommend this course. 

The best approach to overcoming stonewalling depends upon the cause of the stonewalling.

For example, if someone is avoiding conflict because they don't want to upset their partner, then learning better conflict resolutions skills and being emotionally honest with the partner could be extremely helpful.

On the other hand, if someone is using stonewalling because they don't know how to deal with their own emotional overwhelm and physiological stress response during the conflict, then learning emotional management skills may be more helpful in overcoming this pattern.  

Another consideration is how much damage has already occurred within the relationship.

For example, if there is little trust between partners then they may have difficulty overcoming the issue on their own and be unwilling to talk openly and honestly. This is when therapy will probably be necessary before any real progress can occur.

On the other hand, if both individuals agree that they want to work through their problems together and are open to making changes they may be able to do so through focused discussion and practices meant to increase intimacy, improve conflict resolution, and strategies to become better communicators like in The Couples Guide to Financial Intimacy

Techniques to help: 

  • Being open to postponing a discussion when things get heated.
  • Making space and time an option for a partner who feels emotionally overwhelmed.
  • Being open to feedback.
  • Changing perceptions to see the problem as the focus rather than fighting against the other partner. 
  • Seeing both partners as a team working toward the same goal.
  • Acknowledging mistakes, wrong perceptions, or jumping to conclusions. 
  • Acknowledging what was said before responding.
  • Using neutral words instead of blaming or accusing.

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