You might know it by another name: ‘the silent treatment’ maybe, or ‘freezing’ someone out’. It can involve one person saying ‘I’m fine’ even though something is clearly wrong, or simply refusing to speak at all.
It’s often very frustrating for the person on the receiving end who might want to know what’s wrong but be unable to get an answer – if it continues it can lead to them feeling resentful.
Stonewalling can also be used as a form of control in a relationship.
Why do we ‘stonewall’ in relationships?
Stonewalling can be used as a way to punish our partners. It can be like a passive-aggressive game: we sometimes do it because we feel our partners should already knowwhat’s wrong, especially if it’s something they’ve done.
Sometimes, we stonewall because we can’t express what we’re feeling – perhaps because it’s difficult or painful. Again, we may feel that our partners should be able to tease this information out and that it’s up to them to figure out how to do this.
Sometimes, it’s because we’re unsure what we’re feeling, and perhaps afraid of thinking about it too much. In cases like this, it can feel easier to simply say you’re ‘fine’ when asked and try to convince yourself the same.
It can happen for practical reasons too: if you have really busy lives and have lots of other commitments like work and looking after children, you can get into the habit of not discussing emotions simply because you don’t have time.
Stonewalling may be a habit you’ve had for a long time. If you grew up in an environment where no-one ever said what they were thinking – or doing so had negative consequences – you may have never developed this ability. The idea of talking about your emotions may make you feel anxious or upset.
And sometimes, it’s a habit we can fall into because of experiences in previous relationships. If a previous partner has reacted badly to you speaking your mind, you may have learned to avoid doing this.
When stonewalling is deliberate, and is used with intent, a partner might be trying to dominate the relationship. They could be trying to control you by not addressing any issues and stopping you from taking any action as well.
What’s the effect on the relationship?
Rarely a positive one. The other person is often left feeling very put out. They may really want to help, but feel totally unable. If stonewalling is something that happens lots in the relationship, they may begin to feel resentful that they’re being treated in such a hostile, distant manner.
One potential reaction is them pushing the person doing the stonewalling to explain themselves. The other partner may grow angry or start an argument to try and get things out in the open.
While on some level this is understandable, it can often have the effect of making the situation worse, especially if the reason this person doesn’t want to talk is because they feel scared or anxious about what they’re feeling. They’re just as likely to clam up and dig in as they are to actually express themselves – which, in turn, can leave the other person feeling even more frustrated as a result.
Alternatively, over time the other partner may simply stop trying to engage, having tried and failed to get a response so many times. This can lead to a sort of ‘emotional stalemate’, where no emotions are ever getting expressed, and the connection between the couple becomes weaker and weaker as the years go by.
There is also a possibility that the relationship has become an abusive one. Stonewalling in this case would be used alongside other controlling behaviour such as: intimidation, isolation, and constant criticism. The partner doing the stonewalling gains more control of the relationship and becomes the abuser. The partner being stonewalled may withdraw and start to feel worthless.
How can you address stonewalling?
The best thing to do if you’re the person on the receiving end is to be understanding and compassionate. Try to recognise that, even if it’s frustrating to be treated like this, lashing out isn’t going to make the situation any better. It may be that your partner – far from trying to be vindictive – simply feels unable to express their emotions, or is worried about the consequences.
The first thing to communicate is that you want to help, but you’ll only be able to do this if they’re willing to talk. Try to be kind, rather than pressuring. Don’t try to force them into opening up – simply give them the option, and let them know you’re ready to listen. You may like to read our communication tips to try with your partner. These are great ways of having tricky conversations without things getting heated or turning into a row.
You may also like to suggest that they try talking things over with someone other than you to start. Sometimes, it’s easier to talk about our relationships with someone who is outside of it. This might mean a family member or trusted friend, or, if they feel they could do with professional help, a counsellor. They may find having this chance to verbalise things can put what they’re experiencing in perspective – and make it less daunting to talk things over as a couple later on.
If you’re the person stonewalling, try to accept that, even though it can be really difficult, it really is better to get things out in the open than keep them hidden. Again, our communication tips will give you some useful insight into having this kind of conversation – including when and where to approach the situation, which can be just as important as what you say.
If you’re still worried, you may like to consider writing down what you have to say. Sometimes, it’s easier to express difficult emotions this way than by talking as it creates a bit of space between you and the conversation. You can think hard about what you have to say and delete the bits that don’t sound right rather than having to get everything right at the time. You could try writing a letter or even just a text. We’d always recommend moving onto to talking in person later on, but if you think you’d be more comfortable starting this way, then it could be a really useful option.
In some cases, where the relationship could perhaps be an abusive one, you may need to think of a different way to approach things. If you are the one being stonewalled, then you may want to carefully think through any actions you might want to take and what response they might evoke in your partner. If in fact trying to communicate with your partner is more likely to have a negative outcome than a positive one. You may want to seek some professional help from a counsellor or Women's Aid who specialise in this area.