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

Define stonewalling

What does stonewalling mean?

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 calming down and re-engaging.

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 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.

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'll be back." 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.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

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

Dr. K

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.

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  1. "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.

  2. 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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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…..

  6. 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.

  7. 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

  8. 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.

  9. 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

  10. 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*

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