What is Stonewalling? How Can It Impact Your Relationship, According to an Expert

Feel like you're talking to a wall? Here's how to handle it.
7 Signs of Stonewalling You Should Watch Out For
Photo: Maria Korneeva / Getty Images
Hayley Folk
Hayley Folk
Hayley Folk
Hayley Folk
The Knot Contributor
  • Hayley writes articles on a freelance basis for The Knot Worldwide, with a specialty in sex and relationships.
  • Her work has appeared in The Knot, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29 and more.
  • Prior to The Knot Worldwide, Hayley was a full-time editor at a business publication.
Updated Aug 24, 2023

If you're on the side of TikTok that veers into relationship dynamics, chances are, you've heard all the popular terms: rizz, beige flags, gatekeeping, love bombing—and the list goes on. But if you're struggling in your marriage or partnership, you may need to know about stonewalling. What is stonewalling, you may ask? Understanding the conflict style could be the secret to saving your relationship in the long run.

What is stonewalling in a relationship? And is there such a thing as unintentional stonewalling? To understand this lesser-known term, we've teamed up with Alicia Ortega, a marriage and family therapist.

Below you'll find all the tools you need (whether you are the partner being stonewalled, or the one committing the stonewalling) to get back to the roots of your relationship and see it thrive in the future.

In this article:

What Is Stonewalling In A Relationship?

First things first: What is stonewalling in a relationship? "Stonewalling often feels like you're talking and suddenly there's an unseen barrier in the conversation," Ortega describes. "It's as if the other person has shut down, turned away, and become distant, even if they're right in front of you."

7 Examples Of Stonewalling Tactics

If the following experiences sound familiar, it's a telltale sign of stonewalling. Here are seven stonewalling tactics to help you identify this negative style of communication.

1. Avoiding eye contact

Sure, sometimes we all get overwhelmed or busy and may not make the eye contact we should. But if you or your partner is avoiding eye contact intentionally, this is a sign of stonewalling.

2. Changing the topic randomly

Changing a topic randomly is okay in certain contexts. But if you or your partner change the topic to avoid a hard conversation you were previously having, it's not a great sign.

3. Ignoring what someone is saying

Remember: Both you and your partner should feel listened to. If there is ignoring happening, this can lead to feeling disconnected and disrespected in your relationship.

4. Using the silent treatment

You've probably heard of this one before. The silent treatment is when someone gets angry or doesn't like what you have to say, so they fall silent and don't communicate at all. In some cases, this can go on for weeks—and it is not a healthy way to deal with any conflict.

5. Abruptly walking away

If you need to walk away from a conversation, it's okay to say that out loud and ask to return to the conversation when you're both calm. But abruptly walking away—without communication—can leave your partner feeling hurt and alone.

6. Acting busy

Acting busy, in lieu of talking to your partner, is never the answer. (Ahem, it's called stonewalling…)

7. Aggressive body language

Think eye-rolling, shrugging shoulders and clenching fists. This, combined with other stonewalling tactics, is another way to identify the relationship issue.

How Can Stonewalling Hurt Your Relationship?

"Imagine someone avoiding eye contact, changing the topic randomly or simply choosing to ignore what you're saying," muses Ortega. "And while it might seem like just another quirk, it's far from harmless."

Stonewalling can take a serious strain on relationships. Whether you or your partner is stonewalling, it can cause confusion, hurt and even damage one's self-esteem after some time. In particular, the stonewalling tactic of silent treatment can be quite damaging.

"It [the silent treatment] can make the person on the receiving end feel they're talking to, well, a stonewall," Ortega shares.

What To Do If Your Partner Is Stonewalling You

Does any of this sound familiar? If so, it's important to understand how to handle the relationship dilemma. While every situation is unique, note that if there's even a hint of potential abuse, you should tread with caution: Prioritizing safety is of the utmost importance. If you ever feel that addressing the issue on your own might escalate things negatively, consider an alternative route like finding a licensed couples therapist or contacting the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

But if you're comfortable, and the one that's being met with the cold shoulder, consider trying these four helpful strategies below.

1. Breathe

Breathing (and thus remaining calm) is important. First, take a big deep breath. In through your nose and out through your mouth. Do this ten times.

2. Try to be understanding

"When faced with a wall, don't try breaking it with a sledgehammer," says Ortega. "Approaching someone with anger rarely does the trick. Instead, show them you're ready to listen without judgment."

3. Pen your feelings

Writing can often be the best form of self-expression. (There is a reason therapists often recommend journaling!) You can use a scrap of paper, or make journaling a part of your daily life with a guided journal.

As Ortega suggests, if face-to-face conversation feels too a daunting challenge, jotting down your feelings can be an alternate route to connection.

4. Seek an outside perspective

While it may sound counterintuitive, discussing the situation with someone else (such as your most trusted friend, family member or a professional therapist) can help you whittle through the mud and get to what you're actually feeling.

What To Do If You're Stonewalling Your Partner

If you're the one stonewalling your partner, it's important not to judge yourself: If you resort to stonewalling, it's often out of being overwhelmed with fear, anxiety or plain frustration—and there are ways to get it in check.

1. Acknowledge and reflect

You can't change your behavior if you don't know why it's happening. "Acceptance is step one," says Ortega. "Understand why you're resorting to this behavior. Are you afraid? Overwhelmed? Identifying the root cause is half the battle."

2. Open up, even if it's slowly

If you're the person doing the stonewalling, chances are, your partner is ready and willing to hear what you have to say. But if it feels overwhelming for you, start small. "Sharing emotions doesn't have to be a flood; a trickle can sometimes do the trick," Ortega says. "Starting small can gradually help you build the confidence to share more."

3. Know that seeking outside help is okay

Remember that it's okay to ask for help. It's easy to think you can tackle everything solo, but sometimes having a mediator or therapist can be key to unlocking healthier communication habits.

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