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What is Stonewalling in a Relationship?

Stonewalling in a relationship occurs when one person closes themself off from the other person, effectively erecting a metaphorical wall to block off communication. There are many reasons why stonewalling may occur, but the emotional effects of stonewalling can be the same; resentment, anger, and frustration.

29 June 2023
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From the perspective of an outside observer, one person ignoring the other may not appear to be a big problem, but if stonewalling persists over time, the effects can be so great as to fracture the relationship and cause separation or divorce. In this article, we will discuss what happens when one person stonewalls another person in a relationship and what you can do to find a resolution. 

The “Four Horsemen”

What is stonewalling and when was the term first used? The term “stonewalling” is a term used by American psychologist, John Gottman, referring to one of the “Four Horsemen”. The “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” is a Bible reference in the New Testament to the “end of times”; the four horsemen are conquest, war, hunger, and death. Gottman uses the term “Four Horsemen” to explain four major contributors to the end of relationships:

  1. Criticism

  2. Contempt

  3. Defensiveness, and

  4. Stonewalling

What is stonewalling in a relationship?

According to the Gottman Institute, stonewalling, by definition, is often a response to contempt (i.e. behaviours which make a person feel despised and worthless). When one person (the listener) stonewalls, they effectively withdraw from interactions and stop responding to their partner. In other words, it is a way of coping with contempt, but rather than tackling issues upfront, the partner appears to avoid doing so. Put another way, they erect a metaphorical wall between themself and their partner. They may do this in a number of ways, including:

  • Turning away

  • Being unresponsive

  • Acting busy

  • Engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviours.

A person may stonewall because they are emotionally overwhelmed and are simply not in a physiological state to discuss matters in a rational manner. Unfortunately, if stonewalling persists over time (i.e. it becomes a bad habit), it can become extremely difficult to stop. Stonewalling can also be used as a way of controlling another person in a relationship. 

How can I overcome stonewalling in a relationship? 

Stonewalling often occurs because the listener is overwhelmed or physiologically flooded; they are simply not in a rational state to deal with the other person. This physiological flooding is related to the stress response, whereby the heart rate rises, stress hormones are released, and the fight or flight response may be triggered. You could deal with the situation by:

  • Requesting a break from the discussion

  • Empathising with the person stonewalling

  • Seeking professional support

  • Taking time to look after yourself

The best approach for the person being stonewalled is to stop. Of course, this may be easier said than done, but an attempt to resolve the matter any other way may make matters worse. While the person on the receiving end of the stonewalling behaviour may want to resolve the matter there and then, they have to recognise that the other person needs time to recover and discuss the matter when they are ready. 

The Gottman Institute recommends agreeing upfront on a ‘neutral signal’ (e.g. a word or phrase) that indicates the other person is feeling overwhelmed. Using a funny phrase or word can even prove an effective way of instantly de-escalating and reframing the situation. 

If stopping does not prove effective, seeking relationship counselling may prove extremely useful. It is important to remember that stonewalling does not necessarily signal that the relationship is doomed to failure. It may simply be a way for one person to cope with being overwhelmed in the moment. Indeed, many of us will have experienced stonewalling at some level during our relationships. An experienced, trained relationship counsellor can help you both to understand what is happening and develop strategies to manage stonewalling. 

What is the emotional effect of stonewalling on relationships?

If stonewalling becomes a repeated habit of avoidance, it can cause considerable relationship stress. Not only are partners unable to discuss matters rationally, but the level of resentment and anger can also build on both sides. One person becomes increasingly angry that the other is not responding, and the other becomes increasingly frustrated that the other person won’t respect their boundaries and give them time to recover and discuss the matter later. 

Left unchecked, stonewalling leads to an “emotional stalemate”, causing the relationship to gradually weaken over time. It could lead to separation or divorce and, in some cases, it may even lead to an abusive relationship and a feeling of worthlessness.

Stonewalling can also negatively impact children who feel the impact of the frustration and anger. It may even be the case that the child is stonewalled. As relationships become increasingly fractious, children may feel insecure, anxious, and stressed. If children are involved and a couple decides to separate, they may choose to consider family mediation to ensure the best outcome for all parties involved. If you are considering a divorce, take a look at our blog on the top 3 things to do before contacting a divorce lawyer.

Final words on stonewalling in relationships

Stonewalling can have an insidious effect on marriages and relationships. Ultimately compassion and understanding are the best routes to overcoming stonewalling. Unfortunately, in some cases, perhaps due to abuse or because the stonewalling persists for a considerable amount of time, couples may separate or divorce. If this is the case, it is important to seek the support and guidance of an experienced family law Solicitor who will ensure the best possible outcome for you and your children, allowing you to move on to a positive future. Your family law Solicitor may be able to support with divorce matters, mediation, dissolution, cohabitation agreements, financial settlements and arrangements for children.

Guillaumes LLP Solicitors is a full-service law firm based in Weybridge, Surrey. We have a highly experienced family law team who can assist you with any legal matter, including divorce, dissolution, and making family and financial arrangements. To make an appointment, please get in touch or call us on 01932 840 111.