September 17, 2023

Deconstructing Stonewalling

This toxic approach to conflict is unintentional or intentional and verbal or nonverbal

person standing in front of a stone wall

Shutting down. Clamming up. Walking out. Giving up.

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We all hope that we’ll rise to the occasion and communicate clearly in tough situations — that we’ll stand up for ourselves while being respectful of the needs and feelings of the people we care about.

But sometimes, when the going gets tough, our emotional walls get higher. And with every delay, distraction and deflection — every slammed door, dismissive comment and dodged conversation — those walls become harder to scale.

Psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD, breaks down the concept of stonewalling — what it is, why it happens, and what to do if the behavior is threatening your relationships.

What is stonewalling?

Stonewalling is way of intentionally or unintentionally, verbally or nonverbally withdrawing from a conflict. While some people stonewall on purpose to assert control or do harm, the behavior is often inadvertent. Dr. Albers likens it to turning off the light switch. “You’re having a conversation and all of a sudden, the other person shuts off. Not just verbally or physically — they emotionally disengage.”

She explains that the way we talk about stonewalling in relationships is largely the result of psychologist John Gottman’s writing on the topic. His Cascade Model of Relationship Dissolution uses the imagery of “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” to describe the four ineffective communication styles that he believes can predict divorce. The four styles are:

  1. Criticism.
  2. Defensiveness.
  3. Contempt.
  4. Stonewalling.

His work is influential enough that it’s probably one of the first sources that pops up when you research “stonewalling” online. But even though the most popular writing on the topic focuses on romantic relationships, Dr. Albers says any relationship can encounter stonewalling. Best friends, coworkers, family members … you name it. Politicians stonewall all the time, as do lawyers. Heck, we all do it sometimes!

Stonewalling is a common tactic because (at least in the short term) it works. It’s a defense mechanism that stops the immediate conflict from progressing any further. And it gives the person doing the stonewalling a sense of safety and control over the situation.

But in the long term, Dr. Albers cautions that disengaging from conflict — consciously or unconsciously — can damage or even destroy a relationship.

Unintentional and intentional stonewalling

Building a wall isn’t something you do by accident, but stonewalling might be.

“Unintentional stonewalling is often a sign that someone is having difficulty coping with the conversation,” Dr. Albers explains. “They may be conflict avoidant. It might even be a fight-or-flight response: They need to escape.”

And it’s often the case that people simply don’t have the skills or capacity they need to have the conversation in that moment. “It doesn’t come from a place of wanting to disconnect or distance,” she says. “It’s just not knowing how to have that conversation in a healthy and productive way.”

She adds that stonewalling is a common tactic for people with depression or who have an anxious attachment style. Disengagement can also be a protective measure for a person who struggles with a high level of anxiety or has endured significant trauma. In that case, stonewalling may be a way to calm down and feel safe again. For people who grew up in dysfunctional households, it may be a learned behavior.

In still other cases, stonewalling is a deliberate and emotionally abusive act. A person who stonewalls on purpose is exerting control over (and often demeaning) another person by acting as if their attention and interest are a reward to be “earned.” People with narcissistic personality disorder may be especially inclined toward this behavior.

Verbal and nonverbal stonewalling

Shutting down communication will look different from person to person and situation to situation. According to Dr. Albers, stonewalling can be verbal or nonverbal.

Verbal stonewalling can take the form of “the silent treatment,” but it can be subtler than that, too. Changing the topic, only offering clipped, one- to two-word responses and refusing to answer questions can have the same effect. In some cases, there actually is a conversation happening, but one person is filibustering, or being dismissive, accusatory or aggressive in a way that’s designed to end the discussion.

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Nonverbal stonewalling can be as straightforward as avoiding contact or getting up and walking away. Sometimes, it’s a question of body language — rolling one’s eyes, adopting a closed-off posture or refusing to make eye contact. Physical stonewalling can also involve shifting focus. “The biggest one I see is people taking out their phone,” Dr. Albers states. “That stops the conversation immediately.”

The best indicator that somebody’s stonewalling you is how it makes you feel. You may feel frustrated, helpless, confused, disrespected or angry.

How stonewalling can hurt a relationship

Truth be told, everybody stonewalls occasionally. We all experience moments when we just can’t, and that’s OK. It only becomes a problem for a relationship when it goes unaddressed. And if stonewalling becomes an engrained pattern — an established communication style between two people — it can be devastating.

“Stonewalling leaves conflict unresolved, and it can make the other person feel disrespected, or that their perspective isn’t important or valued.” Dr. Albers says. “Sometimes, people just give up, which creates an emotional distance that can be difficult to repair.”

How to stop stonewalling

The apocalypse metaphor Gottman uses to talk about stonewalling in relationships might make your situation feel hopeless. And sure, unlearning a behavior like stonewalling is difficult. But Dr. Albers encourages you to look on the bright side.

“The good news is stonewalling is a pattern that can be addressed,” she reassures. “Once you recognize that you’re doing it, it’s something that can be changed, and that change can do wonders for your relationship.”

So, how do you go about breaking down a wall?

Name the behavior and take a ‘time out’

Dr. Albers shares that the first thing you need to do to stop stonewalling is recognize the behavior in the moment. Particularly if you’re the one doing the stonewalling.

Labeling or naming a behavior can make a big difference because you’re offering the person you’re talking to insight into what’s happening in your head, and why.

“Tell the person you’re talking to that, ‘I’m shutting down right now.’” Dr. Albers advises. “Emphasize that what the person has to say is important, but that you need to calm down before re-engaging in the conversation.” Then, set up a time — minutes, hours or days later — to return to the discussion.

“Don’t just leave it hanging,” she urges.

Here are a few other tips for breaking through a wall — yours, or somebody else’s:

Empathize

If you’re the one doing the stonewalling, acknowledge that your need to step away from a conflict is likely impacting the other person’s feelings — that they may be frustrated, hurt or angry.

If you’re the one being stonewalled, tell the other person that you recognize how difficult it must be for them to have the conversation.

Be mindful of your body language

Are you sitting with your arms and legs crossed? Are you looking at the floor instead of the person you’re talking to? Are you clenching your jaw? Is your body rigid, your posture frozen? “Sometimes, we’re not aware that we’re giving signals that we don’t want to talk,” Dr. Albers points out.

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Vocalize your needs

Change doesn’t happen overnight — especially when the thing you’re trying to change is a communication style. And conflict isn’t one-sided. That means there needs to be give and take on both sides.

At some time when you aren’t actively in conflict, have a conversation about what you each need to get through difficult conversations. If you struggle to articulate your thoughts and feelings when you’re upset, you might need time to write things out before having a tough conversation. Or maybe the other person isn’t at a place where they can maintain eye contact during a conflict, so they need to be allowed to demonstrate engagement in another way.

Accommodating each other’s needs — even in difficult moments — is a sign of respect and good faith.

Stay emotionally engaged

It’s happening. You’re shutting down, freezing up, disconnecting. You’re not able to have this conversation right now.

That’s OK. Talking isn’t everything.

“You can still engage with someone emotionally without having a conversation,” Dr. Albers offers. “Maybe you don’t leave the room. You sit next to them. You hold their hand. Even if you’re not going to be able to have that conversation, you can still be emotionally engaged.”

Respond calmly

It’s always important to be respectful in your conversations, but it’s extra important if you know that the person you’re trying to communicate with is conflict averse, anxious or has a history of trauma. Raising your voice, interrupting or adopting an aggressive posture will push a stonewaller away. Active listening skills can go a long way in a situation like this.

“Even if you don’t like what the other person is saying, respond calmly,” Dr. Albers stresses. “It’s more likely to encourage them to keep going versus shutting them down.”

See a therapist

If stonewalling has become your go-to technique for dealing with difficult situations, it could be a good idea to unpack the reasons why with a counselor. Not only can they help you sort through any underlying issues that are impacting your behavior, but they can also help you learn and practice healthier communication styles.

If there’s a specific relationship where the behavior needs to be addressed, couples, marriage or family counseling could be especially useful.

Tearing down walls and building bridges

When we stonewall, we’re emotionally disengaging from a conflict. Sometimes, we do it on purpose, and sometimes, we do it without realizing it. Stonewalling can take many forms. Sometimes it’s physical, like walking away or avoiding somebody. Sometimes, it’s giving somebody “the silent treatment.” And sometimes, we stonewall with words, by changing the subject or minimizing the situation.

Although some individuals stonewall on purpose to assert control or do harm, the behavior is often unintentional. That’s because it’s a natural response to a situation where an individual lacks the capacity to handle their feelings or communicate effectively. Stonewalling is a particularly common coping mechanism for people with anxiety, depression a history of trauma or a conflict-avoidant personality.

While it’s an understandable defense mechanism that we all employ from time to time, habitual stonewalling is toxic to relationships — be they romantic, familial, friendly or professional. It can be a tough habit to break, but it’s worth the effort. Once you recognize it’s happening — and learn to respond in a different way — your relationships with other people will be easier to navigate and (we couldn’t resist) a lot less rocky.

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