Say you’re dining out for the evening with your partner, and you both begin discussing that one thing that always gets both of you going — and not in a hot and heavy kind of way. Maybe it’s finances or the division of household chores.
You start expressing your side of things only to have them abruptly stop talking altogether, leaving you staring into your meal feeling angry, alone, and resentful.
It turns out there’s a word for this frustrating kind of behavior: stonewalling. It’s a way of emotionally checking out.
We’ve all been guilty of this at some point, whether by clamming up during a fight or refusing to make eye contact when we’re mad.
Here’s a look at some of the classic signs that can show up in a relationship and steps you can take if you recognize them in your own.
Stonewalling happens when you try to avoid anger by ignoring conflict. The person retreating is generally overwhelmed and starts shutting down as a way of self-soothing and calming themselves down.
While it’s normal to occasionally use the silent treatment as a coping mechanism, it’s a red flag when the behavior turns chronic.
A person who stonewalls may be unable to express how they’re feeling and find it easier to disengage. This can look like:
- closing their eyes during an argument
- turning away
- checking their phone nonstop in the middle of a heated discussion
They may also change the subject or use one-word answers to avoid talking. And when they do say something, they’ll use these common phrases:
- “Do whatever you want.”
- “I’m done.”
- “Just leave me alone.”
- “I have to get out of here.”
- “I can’t take it anymore.”
Many people assume that stonewalling is more common in men. While older research indicates that men are more likely to emotionally withdraw from difficult conversations compared to women, it’s a myth that it’s only a “guy thing.”
Anyone can give the cold shoulder. It’s generally a defensive tactic learned in childhood.
It may not seem like a big deal, but refusing to speak can be a serious issue in several ways.
It creates a sense of isolation
Stonewalling isolates both of you instead of bringing you together toward a resolution.
It can end a relationship
Even if it creates a feeling of relief in the moment, regularly “checking out” is a destructive habit that eventually deteriorates your relationship. According to researchers at the Gottman Institute, when women stonewall, it’s often a predictor of divorce.
It can affect your health
If you’re the stonewaller, you can experience physical reactions, such as elevated heart rate and rapid breathing.
When trying to determine whether the behavior has turned abusive, it’s important to look at intention.
Someone stonewalling often feels unable to express their emotions and will “freeze” you out as a way of protecting themselves.
On the other hand, stonewalling can also be used to create a power imbalance by allowing the other person to decide when and how you’ll communicate.
Keep an eye on whether their behavior has become a manipulative pattern that reduces your self-esteem or makes you feel fearful and hopeless.
If their silent treatment becomes deliberate with the intent to hurt you, it’s a clear red flag they’re trying to dominate the relationship.
Stonewalling doesn’t necessarily mean the end of a relationship, but feeling safe when communicating is essential. Here are some ways to restore communication.
Avoid lashing out
It’s important to not become hostile or force the other person to open up, especially if they’re already feeling overwhelmed.
Instead, calmly let them know you’re willing to hear what they have to say. Taking the time to actually listen can help de-escalate a difficult conversation.
When stonewalling comes up, it’s OK to give each other permission to take a break. This can help you both feel reassured and cared for.
Whether you’re the person who tends to retreat or it’s your partner, allowing the space for timeouts can help you both avoid becoming overwhelmed during a conflict.
Seek help from a qualified therapist
Reaching out to a couples therapist early on can be a way to deepen your connection and foster healthier ways to communicate.
A therapist can also help you both explore the reasons behind a partner’s silent treatment. They can work on helping them better express their emotions and cope with conflict.
Keep in mind that relationships are a two-way street and require an openness to outside help from both partners.
We all need a break from time to time, especially when it comes to dealing with tough conversations. But refusing to engage in productive conversations, even the really difficult ones, won’t do anyone any favors.
There are ways to work around stonewalling. But if it seems like it’s part of a larger pattern of manipulation, it may be time to rethink things.
Cindy Lamothe is a freelance journalist based in Guatemala. She writes often about the intersections between health, wellness, and the science of human behavior. She’s written for The Atlantic, New York Magazine, Teen Vogue, Quartz, The Washington Post, and many more. Find her at cindylamothe.com.