Stonewalling In A Relationship - Couples Therapy Inc.

This article will describe the difference between physiological stonewalling and stonewalling abuse. We will also talk about how to respond to stonewalling in a relationship when it happens and provide stonewalling examples.

This post was recently featured on a podcast episode of Optimal Living Daily.

Listen now! 

Define stonewalling

What does "stonewalling" mean?

John Gottman calls stonewalling one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse that happens in romantic relationships.

Evidence reveals that it happens when a partner feels overwhelmed, shuts down emotionally, and breaks eye contact. It is seen in both healthy and dysfunctional relationships. People stonewall in happy relationships; they just do it much less.

Stonewalling behavior is a highly gendered behavior according to Gottman's research men. The rate among men is 85% of the time vs. 15% for women. When women stonewall, it's usually a serious sign of marital distress.

When not a manipulation strategy, stonewalling is basically a flooding response. Flooding or Diffuse Physiological Arousal in men and women is the body's alarm system to help humans escape a perceived threat. 

According to the Gottman Institute, flooding is: 

“a sensation of feeling psychologically and physically overwhelmed during the conflict, making it virtually impossible to have a productive, problem-solving discussion.”

What does it look like?

Signs of stonewalling

To the stonewalled partner, the behavior looks bored or disinterested. He remains expressionless and may cross his arms and look away. His body language gives no indication that he’s even listening.

Inside, however, tells a very different story with symptoms including:

  • escalated heart rate (85 or 100 bpm)
  • he is feeling pressure in his chest
  • he's lost "about 30 IQ points," and
  • he's ruminating.

He's overwhelmed and trying to comfort himself through internal dialogue. In this self-talk, he justifies his innocence and projects blame outwardly ("Oh ya, she says that, but what about her? She does things that are even worse!"). It is a coping mechanism or defense mechanism which causes people to shut down rather than calm down and re-engage.

The stonewaller often tells the researcher that he was trying to "calm things down" by not saying anything. He'll tell researchers that he realizes that anything he says (given his self-talk) will just make matters worse.

Regardless of what his motives are, the behavior is deeply upsetting to the partner, who tries even harder to argue their point. It escalates a fight instead of defusing one.

Stonewalling abuse and the stonewaller personality

This response to emotional flooding is distinctly different from "the silent treatment." The silent treatment is emotional abuse because the perpetrator is attempting to control or manipulate his or her partner into doing what they say. Refusing to engage is emotionally abusive and can go on for hours or days until the victim capitulates.

What happens during stonewalling?

During an argument, the partners' nervous systems are not in alignment. One partner can become overwhelmed and stop communicating.

This activates the other partner's response by becoming increasingly vocal and active in an attempt to be heard. The partner feels abandoned or disrespected. Two very different things are being experienced.

Effects of stonewalling

  1. Communication breakdown: this behavior is a barrier to open communication. Emotions aren't expressed, concerns aren't addressed, and neither can find a greater understanding of the conflict.
  2. Escalation: Instead of calming down your partner, stonewalling escalates, frustrates, and angers the other person. They often intensify their volume or negative emotions to attempt to break through the wall.
  3. Emotional disconnection: Whether intentional or not, this behavior communicates indifference, rejection, or a dismissive attitude. Instead of caring and love, the stonewaller invalidates their partner's concerns. Over time, this can erode overall satisfaction, trust, and intimacy.
  4. Resentment: As frustration builds in the partner wanting to talk (or fight) about the issue, so does resentment. Emotional distance grows from a sense of futility. The risk to the relationship grows.
  5. Your partner's well-being: When we feel listened to, we feel accepted, worthwhile and valued, and our sense of emotional well-being grows. The opposite happens when someone tries to block communication. In addition to stress and anxiety, the partner's mental health and self-esteem are impacted.
  6. While stonewalling can be a form of gaslighting, particularly when it is done for power or control, this isn't always true. Someone who is flooded isn't "intentionally" behaving in this destructive way.

Antidote to stonewalling

Once a stonewaller understands what flooding or Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA) is, their job is to calm themselves down. His partner can step back and allow him to do that. Then both can re-engage more calmly after an agreed-upon time of at least 20 minutes.

How to respond to stonewalling

Dealing with stonewalling is straightforward and direct. Both need to call a "time-out" stop the interaction and separate for 20 minutes.

The stonewaller can say, "I'm feeling flooded, and I need to calm down. I will return." If the partner becomes aware of their partner's flooding, they can also call a time-out.

The one calling the timeout should be the person who checks in to continue the conflictual conversations.

This is one factor that distinguishes an abusive stonewaller from an ordinary stonewaller. Once the distinction is clear and agreed upon, the abusive stonewaller will not return until their demands are met.

How to do a 20-minute timeout:

  • Engage in deep breathing by counting 4 on the in-breath and 5 on the out-breath.
  • Tense and relax your muscles using any number of methods including the Jacobsonian Relaxation Technique.
  • Imagine that one's tense muscles are heavy and warm.
  • Close one's eyes and imagine a calm and relaxed scene that would produce a relaxation response.
  • If they begin to ruminate, focus back on the image or one's breathing.

When to seek couples counseling

When stonewalling is a manipulative or controlling strategy, seek help right away. When it is deliberate, it is a form of emotional abuse.

The partner who refuses to communicate is often drawing the situation out. The goal is to prevent the other partner from exploring other options and to gain the upper hand.

In other cases, stonewalling is a trauma response. Individuals who have suffered trauma in the past may respond by using stonewalling as a means of self-protection. It is a form of shielding oneself from further hurt, akin to fainting when under extreme pressure.

Learning how to prevent stonewalling is a teachable skill. Our experienced professionals can work with you and your partner to build these skills in a couples therapy intensive. We offer these in-person or in online therapy.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Dr. Kathy McMahon

Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

Leave a Reply

Please note that your name will be displayed with your comment.

Your email address will not be published.

  1. While I imagined that men were offenders more often than women. I did not expect such a high imbalance between the two.

    I am a 70 year old male who is at “the dirty end of the stick.”

    Admittedly, I am not much of a talker. That caused me to have a mental health emergency.

    In therapy 10 weeks and my partner (F) is in the manner described in the article. Gas lighting that I am always at fault no matter what my effort. If I satisfy the issue, some other past offense is brought to fore.

    Unfortunately, I have been a participant for years believing I was doing my best but have been criticized for wanting to have a mutual understanding of what she wanted in a relationship and of me. She refused to acknowledge the therapists insights to my behavior, said I should suck it up on the issues a because everyone had lousy parents in the 50’s. I am confused because all the couple sites agree: communication, understanding/empathy and mutually agreed intimacy was what women want. It is hard for me to agree.

    Doing the best that I can but I will sometimes fail.

  2. Dear Dr. K –

    This post is the only one I've found in which "stonewalling" is actually recognized as a possible (or even positive) response to trauma in a marriage. It is not always abusive, but can be the only way forward in a long marriage in which one partner has been traumatized (say, as in incest) early in life, and the other partner recognizes much later in life the victim cannot ever come to terms with the damage the abuse may have caused in his intimate relationships.

    My husband (together for 30 years) was sexually abused as a young man. By his father and friends). As a result he had sexual desires and preferences (involving other couples or forms of risk-taking) that ultimately killed our sex life. In later years he struggled to come to terms, but as he entered his last years and showed signs of cognitive aging it was clear to me that this aspect of his past would never be resolved, even through years of therapy.

    Meanwhile I did all possible 'homework' myself in therapy over the years… I feel blessed to have had good support from counselors and ministers who understood the complexity of the issues in my marriage, and that there was no way to 'fix' this problem.

    I guess what I'm saying is that sometimes what we call stonewalling can be the only way to cope with or preserve an otherwise loving and worthwhile relationship – especially as the primary abused person becomes elderly and the partner becomes a caregiver and protector of a family legacy.

    My husband died last March at 89, still struggling in his own way with his sexual past. He was a good man, well known for his intelligence, generosity and good works – including a successful company had had built himself. I have no regrets about my devotion and loyalty. It was a terribly difficult marriage and excruciating for me in many ways. I just wish some of the pat advice given online about approaching conflicts and coping indirectly were a little more nuanced. My husband was never going to 'recover', and couples therapy was just not the answer.


    1. Hi Dama,
      Gottman’s research didn’t go into the history of the men who stonewalled. He was trying to only identify what makes a relationship work. Even with trauma, which does cause cognitive disregulation, taking a time-out in the face of this flooding is still effective. It allows the man (as 85% of stonewallers are men…) to calm himself down and reengage once he does. We are learning so much about trauma and how to treat it in a variety of ways now. I’m sorry your husband didn’t have the benefit of more recent newer understandings. And once someone understands WHAT is causing them to flood, even in the face of trauma (and that they “ride a strong horse” I like to say) it leaves them feeling in better control. It doesn’t take it away but it can create awareness. Thanks for your comment. -Dr. K

  3. I have been married for 9 years together for 13. My husband has always been an angry person.
    When we argue I’m a very calm person I hate yelling but when we argue he thinks he has to yell and get mad to get anything done about how he’s feeling. Well here in the last 3 years I’ve found out that he talks to other women on porn sites women that live close to us. We went to therapy for that but still happening. So when we argue and he starts getting loud and angry his body starts shaking and wide eyed I then shut down and lose any interest in the conversation even if it’s my own feelings we are talking about and I think i stonewall because I’m tired of the mental abuse. So he’s got to be in a really good mood for us to be able to talk about feelings we was even talking about our daughter last night and he got loud and wide eyed so stonewalling for me is to escape mental abuse and to defuse the situation before my daughter hears.

    1. Yes. You are being disrespected by his affair(s). It sounds like it is hard to get the emotional strength to continue to tolerate his immature response to feelings. This all makes sense to me. Did you get therapy from someone with advanced training in science-based counseling? If not, you may not have gotten the help you needed. -Dr. K

  4. I have married for 14 years and our relationship is ok until 10 years. Since our 10 years anniversary
    onwards, our relationship is on and off. My husband start treating me with silent treatment and didn't listen to anything I say.
    He said I was too demanding, controlling and don't put effort in mending our marriage. I had tried to understand his feeling and compromise a lot and give in. It is sad that no matter how much effort I put in to mend the marriage, he seems to put all the blame on me and asking me what I want like I want to divorce him.
    I am exhausted and sometimes, I felt helpless, useless and worthless as he make me feels.
    I read a lot and tried all the suggestion.y
    So I was think, maybe it is his way of asking for divorce and he no longer need me or love me.
    So should I give up this marriage since I am so tired of trying and was the only one trying to mend.
    Can anyone suggest?

    1. Here’s the thing about anyone calling you “too much…” of anything, Lei: Who is setting the standard? This article talks about the responsibility of the stonewaller to calm down and re-engage. It sounds as if you’ve internalized his evaluation of you as helpless, useless and worthless. For that, you can get help of a skilled clinician. It takes two people to “try” to heal a marriage. If your husband isn’t willing to learn how to change things, you need to heal yourself. Consider it. Please. -Dr. K

  5. My boyfriend and I have been together for almost three years. He wants to grow with me and I do too but I don’t know where to start. My communication hasn’t always and is in a work of progress now but I tend to stonewall what are some techniques I can use to express myself even if I’m still upset. He often feels like he has to walk on eggshells around me because I will take everything he says literal and not for the context. How can I change the way I respond so that I’m not taking what he’s saying literal and as a personal attack? I don’t like putting him through the emotional abuse. And lastly I have a very hard time with staying disciplined and consistent with my goals what are some ways I can keep being consistent even on the days I can’t motivate myself. I know I sound like a basket case but I really would like some guidance on how to move forward. I don’t like being in this continuous cycle I always feel stuck in the same cycle. What behavioral patterns can I do to change my behavior.

    1. As a unique individual, I can’t give you clinical advice, but a trained individual therapist will be able to. Ask for an assessment and learn where your difficulties stem from. Good luck! Dr. K

  6. My girlfriend and I have fallen in to this dynamic of an unresolved issue that she refuses to discuss. Her whole premise of defense when she does speak to me is "you won't stop talking about it", yet she does nothing to address the problem and has actually told me she doesn't see herself doing it. She avoids me and doesn't want to spend time with me, won't respond to texts yet if she needs something she will, doesn't apologize or show empathy, turns her back or walks away when I try to talk to her or picks up her phone, gets angry when I tell her how what she is doing makes me feel unheard and unloved. Intimacy and physical involvement has all but stopped and I feel as alone and lost in my own house as on a boat in the middle of an ocean with no paddle or sail to get me to shore. I pay all the bills and even paid off her child support so she didn't have the courts looming over her freedom and driving privilege. I am not allowed to remind her of any good thing I have done when I feel like she hates being with me. I feel pathetic and have asked her to show up for the relationship or please leave and let me heal but she refuses to even speak to me or take action one way or the other. I am becoming bitter and a feeling of hopelessness is now my norm when I used to feel generally optimistic. She has (according to her) had several abusive partners she had been with but I am starting to wonder if maybe these guys started off like me and ended up losing control due to her passive aggressive behavior. I have been patient and waited to see some sign of understanding come from her but nothing seems to even register. she used to be loving and seemingly able to have a healthy relationship. I am no where near perfect but I have tried to be my best self as much as I can and improve on how I interact on a daily basis to no avail. what more can I do? She doesn't have the financial means to move out on her own and I am tired of paying the way for my own misery. any advice?

    1. Perpetual issues are present in every relationship. Every one. The key point that your girlfriend might miss is that she doesn’t have to agree with you to try to understand you. Also, she may never agree with you or see things the way you see them, even if she hears you out. Ask her to feed back to you what she understands your issues to be. If she does a good job of that, it is your turn to try to explain to her why she sees it differently. If you can come from a position where both of you can be “right” and still disagree, she may be more open to listening. Maybe not.

      However, if she simply isn’t interested in a give-and-take relationship, pay attention. If you feel like it has been “all give and no take” then it may be time for a change. You don’t have any obligation to support her, Dusty. It sounds like you’ve been quite generous with her.

      If you still find that she brings out the worst in you and you still can’t leave, check in with a professional and learn why.

      Thanks for your comment.

  7. I notice how everyone in the comments that has an issue with the article is a female and it’s interesting because as I was reading it the entire time I was thinking to myself that this must be written by a female. Not going to call any of the female commenters out but y’all might want to take some time to reflect on yourself and not be so quick to be the “Karen” cause sheesh all you in the comments are definitely red flags. Men “stonewall” because it’s more easy for us to be quite than get mad and once we get mad we stay mad, so internally we just don’t want to get mad so we become quite. When women get mad they want everyone to know it though, especially the modern woman

    1. Well, despite the stereotyping, Evan, it is true that there are “gendered” behaviors, and stonewalling is one of them. The antidote however, is for men to calm themselves down and to re-engage in the conversation. Shutting down simply makes things worse, as does uncontrolled rage.

      When both men and women can accept responsibility for their feelings and request behavior change, everyone wins. Mutual respect. Mutual sharing.

  8. "Only 15% of women stonewall when they feel emotional dysregulation, and it’s a serious red flag when they do."

    I am a stonewaller trying to learn better ways to communicate & stay grounded, particularly when someone is speaking loudly. I find this article to be offensive to the 15%. The measly 15% of us are just one big red flag. Steer clear. But, for all the male stonewallers out there – here's some words of encouragement and how you can better yourselves. Yikes. I hope the wording of this article was a genuine mistake otherwise, it could potentially be a "silent killer" too.

    You would expect more compassion from a mental health professional.

  9. Interesting article and helps me understand my girlfriend stonewalling. I have anxiety and I used to go on the offence when this happened to me. In the past few months I have taken a gentle approach and really changed but I am still stonewalled. Being stonewalled feels like abandonment and lack of care. It feels invalidating and hugely emasculating especially when all articles advise on how wives can understand why their husbands stonewall.

    It’s mentioned that when women stonewall against men it’s a serious red flag. How? And why? how can this be solved. I’m really stuck here in my relationship

  10. This does not feel like the work of an intelligent therapist, but rather someone that just worked long enough in a field to have an opinion. I have read many articles by qualified professionals, and listened to seminars, and this is quite lacking. I agree with many of the other comments here that there was a clear hint of misogyny. There is no empathy for the woman being stonewalled or clear advice on what to do, but rather for them to just accept the situation they are in if the stonewaller chooses not to change their behavior. It is over simplistic and not properly scientific to state that stonewalling is just a "natural response". It is more nuanced than that, and there are different forms of stonewalling. It lacks logic to state that in men it is natural, yet women must change their attitude or behaviors surrounding it. Reading articles like this reminds me of why it is so important for new blood in mental healthcare. So many people seemed to just waltz into their careers, though I imagine they always feel like they earned their spot. As a victim of stonewalling and abuse, this was sickening to read.

  11. This article doesn't touch on Narcissistic abuse (stonewalling from narcissists is used as a punishment. VERY different from someone just having an overwhelmed nervous system) this article is extremely invalidating to victims of said narcissistic abuse and instead encourages them and gives them hope that they can progress in said dynamic when they are purposely being punished by a vindictive person.

  12. People are complaining that this article is subjective to males, I am a male and I can say I fall to this article and I fall hard. As a child I was told to block out my emotions and that life’s gonna move past u if u sit there and cry, just to get over it and move on. In reality all these women that are complaining don’t realize that us men where set up for this. We where told to ignore, that a man doesn’t cry. So in the end what other choice do I have but to block everything out and go blank…..

  13. Hi there, reading this has really helped me understand about stonewalling. I’m a female and I’ve been stonewalling my partner because I feel too overwhelmed in heated arguments. I do feel my partner doesn’t listen nor understand how I am feeling. Even though I’ve sent it in black and white as I’m unable to talk out aloud. I never knew why I can’t talk. I just completely shut down and end up crying. We’ve been together 8years, even though we can be happy. We can never work as a team as we don’t always see eye to eye. How can we, if we can’t talk. I keep coming up with ideas and solutions but he doesn’t hear me or says how can he if he’s too busy. What’s the point in talking if I keep getting ignored. Or if I ask for help he makes me feel guilty.

  14. My husband and I cannot communicate in an argument .If I ask anything he immediately becomes defensive then I become angry then he shuts down completely for days ,Then tries to behave as if the problem never happened leaving me hurt feeling rejected and alone like there is a complete disconnect.
    I feel like he’s hiding things and doesn’t care about me ,and he doesn’t feel the need to talk at all .Then after many days we just go on again leaving the problems unresolved .I don’t know how to get what I need from him because I have so much built up inside when it comes out it don’t stop .,and we get nowhere .

    1. A good step might be to seek out an individual therapist to talk this situation over with and get some perspective and strategies on how to cope. –Dr. K

  15. This article is so much nope I am just shaking my head. My husband gets angry about something and decides bot to speak to me for days on end – absolutely no argument or nagging on my end – it is an effective punishment for whatever he perceives to be wrong and I am left apologizing so he will speak to me. I can honestly read this useless article and cringe. This is definitely not the stonewalling I am familiar with.
    Then I look. It’s written by a man. Thanks for nothing.

    1. Hi Gretchen
      Stonewalling we’re referring to is a result of flooding. What you are describing is an intentional effort to punish you which may be covert narcissism and not stonewalling in the Gottman sense. The responsibility of the stonewaller in Gottman’s research is to calm himself down and to re-engage in the conversation. Clearly, this is not happening in your marriage. Stonewalling in our definition doesn’t go on for days. It goes on for maybe 30 minutes until the man has calmed down enough to re-engage.

      1. In other words, you put a “fence” around it and isolate the issue so that the hot issue / obstacle can be put aside and other issues can move forward to resolution.

  16. I could tell this article was written by a man before I even checked the gender of the author. There is a lack of empathy towards the women, expecting women to communicate like men and if they don’t then it’s the woman’s fault. Men also need to learn how to read between the lines a little bit. Both need to be trying. There seems to be bitterness towards women, that shows through the slant of this article.If I was a woman who had this therapist for my marriage counselor, I would feel greatly dissatisfied. Next time try to be more objective

  17. Okay, so my partner left home yesterday morning in a good mood, affectionate and all, but was late coming home… he normally let’s me know if he’s going to be late for whatever reason. I got worried so I gave him a call about an hour after he was due home, he didn’t answer. I waited another half hour and called his work phone and his personal phone once each and he still didn’t answer, so I sent a message asking where he was and if everything was okay… no response.
    I got more and more worried over the next 40 minutes and decided to take a drive to his eyes place and see if maybe something had happened with his daughter and he was not able to take a call. His car wasn’t there, so I started driving to the town he works in to see if his car was still at work or if maybe he ended up at a mates place and lost track of time. I had to stop for fuel, after I had finished filling up I saw him drive past towards home. I breathed a sigh of relief, he was okay and paid for the fuel before heading home myself.
    Since I came home he has been ignoring me and I don’t know why. I asked him and explained how worried I was, but he just didn’t respond. He didn’t come to bed last night but instead opted to sleep on the couch. I didn’t sleep well, I still have no idea what’s going on. I have been trying to give space and just do normal things that I do around the house.
    Did I get too panicky and make him feel smothered by checking in with him and attempting to find out if he was okay? Like I said, normally he would let me know if he was going to do something else and I would be fine with that. I’m worried that there’s something more that he’s upset about, but until he’s ready to talk I guess I won’t know.

    1. Clearly you are nagging and bothering him. He is the victim here. If you would just go back to silent submission and wait for him to talk to you then he would be a better man for it. *sarcasm*

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}