What is stonewalling in a relationship?
Distant communication. Shutting down during fights. Leaving the room and refusing to make compromises. Are you being stonewalled in your relationship?
Perhaps a better place to start is: what exactly is stonewalling in a relationship? Communication is essential in any relationship, but sometimes it can be challenging to express our emotions and feelings to our partner. Stonewalling is a communication issue that occurs when one person in a relationship shuts down emotionally and refuses to talk with their partner. Not only is it one of main signifiers of a doomed relationship, but stonewalling can also create frustration, confusion, and distance between partners, which can damage the relationship's health and longevity.
Don’t worry—despite how scary stonewalling can be, there’s good news. The easiest way to fix a relationship hampered by stonewalling is to undo learned habits and develop better communication skills. Here’s some examples of how stonewalling happens, and a few ways you can counteract it.
This week's episode: AITA for telling a morbid joke about my son?
It's not every day that the Jonathans put up a united front against the crimes of assholery. And while it is against their better judgement, today, the Jonathans will do just that. Together they read the following posts to determine who is the a**hole and also who is the BLEEP!?!"
- AITA for refusing to clean up after my girlfriend even though she was upset?
- AITA for refusing to help my daughter with her car payment because she is a stripper?
- AITA for telling a morbid joke about my son?
Examples of stonewalling in a relationship
While the definition of stonewalling might be clear, stonewalling can sometimes happen in not-so-clear ways. And while it definitely causes relationship problems among romantic partners, it’s also not something that only happens in romantic relationships. Stonewalling can happen between siblings, friends, coworkers, parents and children and more.
Here are a few examples of stonewalling from our podcast episode on the subject:
- Refusing to compromise: A dad didn’t like that his daughter was working as a strip club worker. To express his disagreement, he stopped paying for his daughter’s car and told her to “figure it out” on her own.
- Storming out: During a fight about a medical problem his girlfriend was having—she’d asked him to clean up a very heavy menstrual flow because she was in pain and could not—the girlfriend got angry, gave up and stormed out of the room. As such, neither partner resolved the argument about the problem.
- Dodging the subject: A husband made a morbid joke about his son’s death to his wife as a way to cope. The wife, however, didn’t use humor to cope, and left the husband to deal with his grief by himself. In this situation, both partners stonewalled: the wife stopped communicating entirely, and the husband refused to ask the wife how they could both grieve healthily in their own way.
(Interested in hearing more about these stories? Listen to Am I The Bleep?! for an in-depth analysis of each situation.)
Tips for counteracting stonewalling in a relationship
In moments of disagreement, don’t punish, compromise
Stonewalling starts where communication ends. In a situation where you simply can’t agree on something with your partner, it’s imperative that you find a healthy compromise. Refusing to meet someone halfway will only cause further disruption in your relationship down the road; worse, it can lead to relationship-ending resentment.
Sadly, this isn’t what usually happens. Often times, relationship disagreements end with one partner “punishing” the other for the choices they’ve made. Instead of compromising, they belittle their partner, cut them off financially or make ultimatums. While these things are tempting to do when you’ve been hurt, it’s not a good way to make someone feel comfortable with opening up and talking to you.
Don’t argue under the influence of anything
While it makes sense not to argue under the influence of things like alcohol and drugs, other things can get in the way of a proper conversation, too. Contrary to popular belief, “not going to bed angry” isn’t the way to save a relationship stalled by stonewalling—because fighting while angry and tired is terrible advice.
Instead, try and sit down somewhere when the two of you are both your calm, clear-headed, best selves. Do it in a private space, and leave ample time to discuss.
Listen to your partner’s needs just as much as you prioritize your own
Is your partner always shutting down on you? It might be because you’re using far too many you statements, and not enough I statements. Instead of saying “you’re never on time,” “you always do this” and “you’re not being appreciative of me,” try phrases like “respecting my time is important to me,” “I sometimes feel neglected when you do this, even though you’re not trying to,” and “I’d like both of us to work harder at our relationship.”
Then, once you’ve said your piece, really listen. How does your partner feel? What do they need? In the instance with the husband who made a morbid joke, he clearly needed to grieve in his own way—but he didn’t listen when his wife said she was not comfortable grieving that way. Instead, he stuck to his principles and caused a relationship rift.
Listening to your partner’s needs like this can help cut down on stonewalling tremendously.
Stop stonewalling by communicating
The best way to stop stonewalling? Address it as soon as it starts to avoid further damage to your relationship. By understanding why stonewalling happens and learning how to communicate more effectively with your partner, you can overcome communication pitfalls like these and work together to build a stronger, healthier relationship.
Need more coaching advice? Lean into our experts for hands-on guidance, or listen to our podcast episode for more on stonewalling solutions.