Even though you’ve never made sparks shoot from your fingers or teleported anyone from one place to another with the muttering of a few words, your partner still thinks you have magic powers. Well, at least by their behavior, you can tell that they do. Something is obviously on their mind, but they’ve shut you out. Maybe they’re mad at you, making you feel it by slamming doors or angrily shuffling things around the house. Or maybe they’re being evasive, and not discussing a topic you know is on their mind. Or maybe they shut down mid-conversation and are refusing to talk anymore. Whatever the case, they’re not communicating with you. You’re being stonewalled, and it’s not pleasant.
Along with criticism, contempt, and defensiveness, the Gottman Institute lists stonewalling as one of the so-called “Four Horsemen” that can predict the failure of a relationship. The behavior occurs when a person closes themselves off during a discussion, refusing to interact and building a metaphorical wall between themselves and their partner. It may be a coping mechanism formed in their youth or it may be a way of gaining power. Whatever the reason, it’s unhelpful.
It’s never easy to feel like you’re being stonewalled in a relationship. When your partner shuts down emotionally, refuses to address your questions or concerns or engages in other tasks while you’re talking to them, it can be very isolating. Stonewalling can make you feel alone and like your feelings aren’t being heard or validated. The behavior can also make you feel as though you and your partner aren’t on the same page and sow seeds of discontent and even distrust.
“Stonewalling can lead to further disconnection in a relationship,” says Dr. Carolina Estevez, Psy.D, a Licensed Psychologist at Infinite Recovery. ‘It can create an environment of mistrust and resentment, preventing any kind of progress or resolution.’ The person being stonewalled, Estevez adds, may feel unheard and disrespected, and these feelings can lead to further hurt, confusion, and resentment. “Ultimately, stonewalling can lead to a breakdown in communication within a relationship or even its dissolution.”
In other words, stonewalling is a problem that needs to be resolved. If you feel like you’re being stonewalled, there are a few tactics that you can try to feel better, help break down the proverbial wall, and reestablish communication. Here are some steps to take.
So Your Partner Is Stonewalling You...
1. Be Kind to Yourself
Stonewalling can make you feel frustrated, angry, and powerless. It can be easy to give into those feelings and take them as being true. In extreme cases, stonewalling can lead to the person on the receiving end believing that they are the problem. It’s important to recognize that this isn’t the case and to see your partner’s behavior for what it is. This can help you take back some power and agency. “Honor your feelings and be gentle and kind with yourself for being provoked in this way,” recommends Joyce Marter, a licensed clinical professional counselor.
2. Process Your Feelings in a Healthy Way
Stonewalling can provoke real and honest anger, and it can be easy to release that anger in a counterproductive way. From shouting at your partner to indulging in destructive self-medication like drinking or overeating, the behavior can be a gateway to negative behaviors
Instead of giving in to these impulses, Marter says to look to self-care. Go for a run. Hit the gym. Talk to a friend or family member. Whatever support or release you have, use it.
3. Don’t Provoke
The frustration caused by being stonewalled can also lead to negative confrontation with your partner as you attempt to produce a response, any response. If you’re being stonewalled, you may try to up the ante by saying something provocative or insulting simply to force the other person into answering. Doing this gives the other person the upper hand and steers the conversation in a negative direction.
“Instead of poking the bear, unlock your horns or let go of your end of the tug of war,” says Marter. “This will give you both time and space to settle and regroup before trying to open the lines of communication.”
4. Put Yourself in Their Shoes
Why is your partner stonewalling you? What are they afraid to say or afraid to confront, either in the relationship or about themselves? What is the root of their behavior? There could be trauma or other negative life experiences in their past that they’re responding to. If you can recognize that their behavior is not a reflection of their feelings for you, but an indication of how they may process conflict, it can help you to be the one to break down the walls.
“Convey to them that you understand how they feel by making statements such as, ‘I realize you are upset and may be hurt and angry that I didn’t remember our plans for tonight,’” says Marter. “Realize that they may not have great communication or conflict resolution skills and that this has nothing to do with you–maybe it has to do with poor parenting or a lack of emotional support growing up.”
5. Try Writing
If verbal communication isn’t working, try to get your thoughts down on paper. This isn’t an invitation to fire off an angry email or start sending negative texts. Instead, try and organize your thoughts in an intelligent, constructive way.
“Speak in terms of yourself and how you are feeling by using ‘I statements’ rather than ‘you statements’ which can trigger defensiveness,” says Marter. “Be the bigger person and delete anything you have written that isn’t kind, necessary, or true. Invite them to respond with a letter or to let you know when they are ready to talk about it.”
6. Ask For Time
If stonewalling is preventing conversations from going any further, ask your partner how much time they need before they’re ready to resume the discussion. Tell them that you understand that this might not be the best time to talk and that you can see how they’re feeling, then tell them you’re ready to resume the conversation calmly at a better time. “Allow them as much time as they ask for, within reason,” says Dr. Dianne Grande, a licensed clinical psychologist.
“If it occurs in the evening hours, they might need until the next day, allowing them time to rest and recover their own calm state.”
7. Anticipate Your Partner’s Response
If you know that your partner tends to stonewall in a discussion, try to approach a conversation in a way that might alleviate some of the stonewalling behavior. For example, if your last disagreement led to your partner stonewalling you, look back at how you broached the topic and consider a different approach.
Grande suggests what’s known as a “soft start-up.” “This means making your first comments calmly and with intent to have a discussion about the issue, without blaming or criticizing,” she says. “It might involve using humor or playfulness, depending upon how the other person typically responds to your humor.”
8. Stay Positive
It’s important to not assume that every interaction or discussion will yield negative results. Thinking that way will influence your behavior and, even inadvertently, direct the outcome of your conversation. If you go into a conversation thinking I know he or she won’t listen to me or I know they will treat in a hostile way, but here goes…,” then how you speak and act will be influenced by that mindset and will affect the way the discussion goes. “Expect a better outcome as you practice these steps,” Grande says. “Your positive expectations will be perceived by the other person and will influence their reaction.”
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