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What is stonewalling and how can it harm your relationship?

Updated: Mar 14

Couple together but not talking to each other

Stonewalling is a communication pattern in which one person in a relationship withdraws from the interaction, refuses to engage, and avoids responding to the other person. This behavior typically involves shutting down emotionally, refusing to communicate, and giving the silent treatment. It can manifest through physical withdrawal, such as walking away or leaving the room, or through emotional withdrawal, where a person may appear emotionally distant and unresponsive.


Before we look at the harm stonewalling can cause within a relationship, it is worth mentioning that stonewalling is a complex pattern of behaviour with various underlying reasons, which may have developed as a coping mechanism such as avoidance of conflict or becoming too overwhelmed by emotions. We will look at this in the second half of this article.


Stonewalling can harm a relationship in several ways:


Communication Breakdown:

Stonewalling prevents open and effective communication. When one partner withdraws and refuses to engage, it becomes challenging to address issues, discuss feelings, or find resolutions to conflicts.


Feelings of Neglect:

The partner who is being stonewalled may feel neglected, unimportant, or rejected. This can lead to a sense of loneliness, emotional distress, and a lack of emotional connection in the relationship.


Escalation of Conflict:

Stonewalling often occurs in the midst of conflict, and when one person withdraws, it can escalate the tension and frustration in the relationship. The lack of communication can make it difficult to resolve issues, leading to a cycle of unresolved conflicts.


Building Resentment:

The partner who feels stonewalled may start to build resentment over time. The lack of communication and emotional responsiveness can create a toxic environment in which negative emotions fester and grow.


Breakdown of Trust:

Trust is a crucial element in any relationship. When one partner consistently stonewalls the other, it can erode trust. The stonewalling behavior may lead the other person to question the reliability and commitment of their partner.


Emotional Distance:

Stonewalling contributes to emotional distance between partners. Over time, the lack of emotional engagement can lead to a growing emotional gap, making it difficult for the relationship to thrive.


 

It's important to note that stonewalling is not a healthy or productive communication strategy in relationships but as mentioned before there may be complex underlying issues. Here are some possible explanations for why someone might stonewall:


Avoidance of Conflict:

Individuals may stonewall as a way to avoid confrontation or conflict. They might fear that engaging in the conversation will lead to arguments, uncomfortable emotions, or a breakdown in the relationship.


Overwhelmed by Emotions:

Some people may stonewall when they feel overwhelmed by intense emotions. They might find it difficult to express themselves or fear that their emotions will become too intense if they engage in the conversation.


Lack of Communication Skills:

Inadequate communication skills can lead to stonewalling. If someone doesn't feel equipped to express their thoughts and feelings effectively, they may choose to disengage from the conversation altogether.


Feeling Defensive:

Perceived criticism or defensiveness can trigger stonewalling. If someone feels attacked or criticized, they may shut down as a defense mechanism to protect themselves emotionally.


Power Dynamics:

Stonewalling can be a way for someone to assert control or power in a relationship. By withholding communication, they may feel a sense of dominance or attempt to gain an upper hand in the interaction.


Previous Negative Experiences:

Individuals who have experienced negative or unproductive conversations in the past may stonewall to avoid reliving those experiences. They might lack confidence in the effectiveness of communication.


Emotional Withdrawal:

Stonewalling can be a form of emotional withdrawal. If someone is feeling disconnected or emotionally distant, they may choose to disengage from conversations to protect themselves from vulnerability.


Personality Traits:

Some people may have personality traits that incline them toward stonewalling. For example, individuals with avoidant or passive-aggressive tendencies might resort to this behavior during conflicts.


Coping Mechanism:

Stonewalling can serve as a coping mechanism for managing stress or overwhelming situations. The person may withdraw to create a sense of emotional distance from the issue at hand.


It's important to address the issue of stonewalling and finding constructive ways to express and manage emotions during conflicts. The partner that is doing the Stonewalling may need to seek help to address the root causes. Likewise, the partner who is being stonewalled may also need help in understanding if their behaviour is somehow exacerbating the issue. Open and respectful communication is crucial for building and maintaining a strong, healthy relationship.


First published in Counselling Directory, 10.01.24




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