Stonewalling: How to Deal With It

Have you ever been in a situation where you were trying to communicate with someone and they completely shut down? Where, no matter how hard you try, which angle you take, and how you choose to approach the discussion you receive zero response? If the answer is “yes”, you’ve likely experienced stonewalling.

This communication behavior can be downright excruciating. After all, when every attempt to improve your relationship is falling on deaf ears, when you’re constantly walking on eggshells, being afraid to bring up important issues or express your concerns so you don’t trigger the shut-down response, it is easy to feel frustrated, powerless, and isolated.

Fortunately, there is a silver lining. With the right methods and strategies, stonewalling in a relationship can be addressed, improved, and, in some cases, rooted out entirely. By taking a proactive approach and learning how to respond to stonewalling in a healthy and productive way, you can start to rebuild trust and establish more effective and meaningful communication that will lead to a stronger, healthier relationship.

What’s The Definition Of Stonewalling?

By definition, stonewalling is a communication behavior in which one person (“stonewaller”) refuses to engage or respond to the other person’s attempts to communicate, usually during a conflict or a difficult conversation.

Stonewalling can manifest itself in a variety of ways. The most common ones include:

  • Avoiding any discussion about one’s feelings (mainly due to general discomfort);
  • Refusing to offer nonverbal communication cues (e.g. avoiding eye contact, maintaining neutral facial expression, etc.);
  • Giving short or noncommittal responses;
  • Diminishing the other person’s concerns of straight out dismissing them;
  • Refusing to engage and/or respond to communication;
  • Walking away from discussion without any warning or explanation;
  • Outright refusing to discuss the issue at hand.

It’s important to note that stonewalling occurs on a spectrum, with varying degrees of intensity. In some cases, a person may occasionally or briefly refuse to respond while, in others, they may withdraw completely for months on end. And, If someone is unsafe and a person chooses to not have a relationship with them, this is not stonewalling.  Every person has a right to protect themselves. 

In regards to stonewalling, this type of behavior can be a significant barrier to building a strong and healthy relationship, as it prevents effective communication and conflict resolution, which is why it is essential to understand how to recognize and address it.

stonewalling definition

Is Stonewalling Manipulative In A Relationship?

There is no simple “yes” or “no” answer to this question. Stonewalling is a complex issue and whether or not it is ill-intended (i.e. manipulative) depends entirely on the causes that led to the person adopting this type of behavior. 

Stonewalling As A Defensive Strategy

In the majority of cases, stonewalling develops as a defense mechanism to either:

In the above cases, stonewalling cannot be considered ill-intentioned, simply because it is not intentional. Rather, it is a learned behavior, a maladaptive coping mechanism born out of fear, anxiety, and/or frustration. This is a indication to do attachment work. 

However, even if a person adopts this behavior out of “necessity”, it is still an unhealthy way to cope with emotional distress. In the most extreme cases, stonewalling can even be dangerous to a person’s mental health, since bottling up emotions leads to a higher risk of developing chronic illnesses and mental health disorders.

In this instance, it is highly advisable for a person to seek professional help and guidance. Today there are many effective strategies that can help a person get more in tune with their emotions and, as such, help them develop healthy coping mechanisms.  PIVOT can help identify what those habitual actions are and help shift into healthier actions based on one’s individual wants and needs. 

Stonewalling As Emotional Abuse/Manipulation Tactics

Whereas stonewalling as a defense mechanism is unintentional and, therefore, innocent, if this tactic is willingly and intentionally employed as a means to an end, it becomes the complete opposite. Stonewalling can be considered manipulative and even abusive when a person uses it to:

  • Control the conversation and, by extension, the relationship;
  • Belittle, disrespect, and demean their partner;
  • Avoid responsibilities;
  • Deflect blame;
  • Punish their partner for (perceived) wrongdoings.

In these instances, stonewalling is born out of a selfish and, often, immature desire to assert dominance over the other person, all while avoiding conflict and meaningful resolution to the issue at hand. As such, this type of behavior is both manipulative and highly toxic, too.

What Type Of Person Uses Stonewalling?

There is no one specific type of person who uses stonewalling. People of any age, gender, background, convictions, or personality can resort to this behavior as a way to cope with stress, fear, anxiety, or a whole range of other emotions.

That said, there are certain behavioral and thought patterns that can make a person more prone to using stonewalling in difficult or conflicting situations. Said factors often have a basis in past experiences that influenced the forming of their attachment style and emotional regulation skills.

How Do You Respond To Stonewalling?

Dealing with stonewalling can be incredibly difficult and frustrating and, in some cases, even infuriating. Fortunately, from these, we can extrapolate how you need to approach the problem: with patience, tactfulness, and a clear mind.

Here are some of the best ways to deal with stonewalling:

  1. Keep your cool. Don’t allow yourself to get angry or agitated and don’t get defensive. Acting on impulse can only escalate the situation and cause the other person to retreat deeper into their shell;
  2. Empathize. Try to see things from their point of view so as to understand what is causing them to shut down;
  3. Define. Set clear boundaries and expectations for communication;
  4. Reschedule the conversation. Taking a break will give both of you a chance to re-center, relax, and clear your thoughts;
  5. Express your feelings. Use “I” statements to make it clear they are your feelings and not sound accusatory;
  6. Encouragement. Give the other person a chance to express their feelings and explain their perspective without judging;
  7. Control your responses. Take responsibility for your actions, reactions, and emotions in the situation to let the person know you’re not out to get them. Rather, you’re trying to solve the issue;
  8. Practice active listening. Asking open-ended questions, making a conscious effort to understand their point of view, and reflecting on their responses is an amazing way to get them to share more.
  9. Take the time to understand their motives and reasoning. Avoid making assumptions and jumping to conclusions;
  10. Remain patient, yet persistent. Keep working toward a resolution keeping in mind that overcoming stonewalling behavior takes time and effort.
stonewalling in a relationship

Tear Down The Stone Wall With Pivot’s Help

Ultimately, dealing with stonewalling can be exhausting and, at some point, it may be too much for one person to handle. If that happens, it’s crucial not to quit or give in to despair. Rather, it is much better to suggest seeking professional help, as it can make the whole process faster, more fruitful, and much more effective.

If you or someone you know is struggling with stonewalling in a relationship, know that there’s no need to suffer in silence. At PIVOT, we offer personalized coaching and in our Glass House retreat, you can find a variety of workshops that can help you and the person you care about break the pattern of stonewalling and rebuild it into a healthier, happier relationship.

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