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What is Stonewalling?

Today, we answer the question: what is stonewalling? We’ll explore the nuances, psychology, and impact of it. But in short, stonewalling is a communication pattern in which one person withdraws from a conversation or interaction because they feel overwhelmed. This can be done through silence, changing the subject, or walking away.

Today, we answer the question: what is stonewalling? We’ll explore the nuances, psychology, and impact of it. But in short, stonewalling is a communication pattern in which one person withdraws from a conversation or interaction because they feel overwhelmed. This can be done through silence, changing the subject, or walking away.

While it may seem like a simple form of conflict avoidance, stonewalling is complex and can have serious consequences in relationships. The name comes from the idea that the person is putting up a figurative “wall” between themselves and the other person or people involved in the conversation.

Perhaps you have experienced this scenario before—you are in an argument with someone, and as the tension rises, they suddenly become silent. They refuse to engage in the conversation or provide any input. You likely felt frustrated, confused, and unheard. This is a classic example of stonewalling. It can happen in romantic relationships, at work, or even during conflict with strangers.

Stonewalling describes more than a short pause in communication. It’s natural to take a moment to think about what we’re saying, particularly when it comes to difficult or emotionally charged conversations. But stonewalling is a prolonged form of disengagement that can be harmful to relationships.

Why does stonewalling happen?

Now that we have a basic understanding of what stonewalling is, let’s explore why it happens. It’s usually because the person who is stonewalling feels overwhelmed or uncomfortable with the conversation. There are physiological changes that go hand-in-hand with stonewalling, including an increased heart rate, the release of stress hormones, and sometimes a fight-or-flight response.

These can result in clouded judgment, a decrease in critical thinking abilities, and a desire to escape or shut down the conversation. The stonewaller may feel panicked, attacked, and flooded with emotions. As a result, they disengage from the conversation to try and protect themselves.

It’s essential to note that stonewalling is often not a conscious choice. It tends to happen instinctively as a defense mechanism in high-stress situations. It may also be a learned behavior from past experiences or family dynamics. However, similar behaviors can also be used intentionally as a manipulative tactic in relationships where one person wants to maintain control or avoid accountability.

At its core, stonewalling is a protective mechanism: it’s a way to maintain emotional distance when someone feels unable to cope with the intensity of certain emotions. For the person who is stonewalling, it may feel like a way to calm themselves down and regain control of their feelings. It can be their way of avoiding being hurt or further destabilized.

7 signs of stonewalling

Let’s look at seven ways in which stonewalling can manifest.

1. Refusing to engage in conversation.

When someone engages in stonewalling, they may outright refuse to participate in a conversation. This refusal can be demonstrated by ignoring questions or comments, providing no response at all, or dismissing attempts to communicate. By choosing not to engage, the stonewaller shuts down the possibility of meaningful dialogue.

2. Giving short responses.

Another common sign of stonewalling is responding with brief, uninformative answers that don’t further the conversation. These responses often lack depth or substance and may convey a sense of disinterest or disengagement. Examples include responding with simple “yes” or “no” answers without elaboration or failing to expand on an answer when prompted.

3. Changing the subject abruptly.

Stonewalling can involve abruptly changing the subject to redirect the conversation away from the topic at hand. By shifting the focus, the stonewaller is trying to avoid discussing the matters at hand and having to face uncomfortable issues. This may involve pointing out something like the weather, making a joke, or mentioning something completely unrelated to the conversation.

4. Leaving the room.

One of the clearest examples of stonewalling is when someone physically removes themselves from the conversation by leaving the room or area. The person in question may make excuses or give no explanation, but their actions convey the message that they are unwilling to participate in the conversation any further.

5. Avoiding eye contact for prolonged periods of time.

Eye contact is a fundamental aspect of nonverbal communication, and avoiding eye contact can signal discomfort, disconnection, and withdrawal. During stonewalling, an individual may consciously avoid making eye contact with the other person, subtly but surely indicating a lack of openness or receptivity to communication.

6. Seeming distracted.

Seeming distracted can involve looking away frequently, gazing out of the window, scrolling on a phone, or fidgeting with objects. These behaviors show a lack of engagement and can indicate that the person’s mind is elsewhere.

7. Appearing emotionally shut down and distant.

One of the most evident signs of stonewalling is appearing emotionally shut down and distant. The stonewaller may seem emotionally detached, unresponsive, or numb during the conversation. They might have a completely blank expression and give little to no emotional cues. For example, they may cross their arms or lean away from the other person, creating a physical barrier and reinforcing their emotional distance.

The impact of stonewalling

The impact of stonewalling can be significant, particularly in romantic relationships. The irony of stonewalling is that it often escalates the conflict rather than diffuses it. It usually happens at a time when the other person is looking for connection, validation, and understanding. Instead, they are met with silence or disengagement.

It can be deeply hurtful to the person on the receiving end of stonewalling. It can leave them feeling unimportant, rejected, and dismissed. They may end up thinking something along the lines of, “This person doesn’t care about me enough to even listen or engage in the conversation.” At their core, the person being stonewalled often feels disrespected.

The person who is stonewalling can be deeply impacted too. They often feel extremely uncomfortable in the moment. While some stonewallers don’t fully comprehend the impact, others with a higher level of self-awareness may experience feelings of guilt or shame due to their behavior. Looking back on the experience, they may realize that it wasn’t the most helpful response. But they may have felt like they weren’t able to act differently at the time.

Ultimately, stonewalling can create an unhealthy communication dynamic in relationships. When one person consistently shuts down during conflict, it can breed resentment and erode trust. We all need to feel important to the people we care about because it gives us a sense of safety. After all, if we think that someone doesn’t care about us, how can we trust them to be there for us in times of need?

If stonewalling isn’t addressed, it can lead to gradual breakdowns in communication and, ultimately, the relationship. The longer it goes on, the more damage it can cause.

How to deal with stonewalling

As with most conflicts, communication is key. Sitting down and taking the time to understand each other’s experiences during stonewalling is a great place to start. It’s important for the person who is being stonewalled to understand that it isn’t a personal attack or intentional behavior. Equally, it’s also important for the person who is stonewalling to recognize the impact of their actions.

Once you have laid a foundation of understanding, you can work together to build healthier ways of dealing with stonewalling when it comes up. Recognizing the need for emotional regulation and having a clear plan in place is the way forward.

One of the best ways to do this is to agree on a time-out signal or word for when one person feels overwhelmed. For example, you might agree on using a specific phrase like “I need a break” or a hand signal to indicate that one person needs some time to themselves.

For the stonewaller, it can feel like a relief to have an opportunity to calm down and collect their thoughts before returning to the conversation. For the person being stonewalled, it can feel like less of a rejection and more of an understanding that the other person needs some time to regulate their emotions.

You may also want to decide on a suggested timeframe for the break to avoid leaving the conversation open-ended. This ensures that both people know that the conversation will continue at some point rather than being left unresolved.

What is stonewalling?

Partners of those who stonewall can help by approaching conversations gently, validating the feelings of the stonewaller, and being accepting of their need for a timeout. Saying something like, “I understand that this may be difficult for you, and I respect your need to take a break. Let’s continue the conversation in 30 minutes,” can help to de-escalate the situation.

If stonewalling continues to be a persistent issue in your relationship, it may be helpful to seek the support of a couples therapist or counselor. They can provide an objective voice and help you develop effective strategies that are tailored to your specific relationship dynamics.

Final thoughts on: what is stonewalling?

We hope we have answered your question, “What is stonewalling?” As you can see, it’s certainly a challenge in relationships. But it isn’t insurmountable if both parties are willing to put in the effort and approach the situation with understanding. With time and patience, the wall can be molded into a bridge, fostering healthier communication dynamics.

Whether you are experiencing stonewalling from your partner or you have a tendency towards it yourself, the fact that you’ve found this blog post is a step in the right direction. It indicates that you care about your relationships and are open to learning and growing.

If you find yourself facing stonewalling, don’t despair. It’s natural to feel frustrated, hurt, or even angry when it happens. Accept these emotions for what they are and take some time to care for yourself. And remember, stonewalling can be overcome with willingness, leading to stronger and more resilient relationships. Love isn’t always easy, but it’s worth it. Let’s strive to build bridges instead of walls.

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