Arguments are a normal part of every relationship. They can even be healthy if you know how to do it right. However, when your partner shuts you down repeatedly, that’s a problem. Not only does it leave you feeling like crap, but it can completely ruin your relationship. Here’s how to respond to stonewalling from your partner.
What is stonewalling?
If you’ve ever been given the silent treatment from your partner, you’ve been stonewalled. While not always used as a form of punishment, stonewalling can leave you feeling shut out and unsure of how to respond. After all, if you’re unable to communicate efficiently (or in this case at all), how can you ever resolve your problems?
New York-based licensed social worker Jackie Martinez, LMSW, LCSW, tells Bolde that stonewalling “happens in the face of conflict with another person when at least one party intentionally ignores and/or avoids the other person for extended periods of time without attempting to resolve conflict.” Perhaps understandably, this can cause some serious problems in relationships.
How it manifests in relationships
- Shutting down during difficult conversations or when they don’t get their own way. Maybe you get in a bit of a tiff over something seemingly minor and you feel tensions rising. All of a sudden, they decide they can’t be bothered anymore and shut down the entire argument. By stonewalling you, they’re taking away your ability to respond to something that’s upsetting you and avoiding responsibility for their actions.
- Refusing to discuss certain topics no matter how important. Brushing issues under the carpet in a relationship will always come back to bite you. Sometimes, difficult discussions need to be had so that you can work through problems and come out the other side. When you’re being stonewalled, that opportunity is taken away.
- Giving one-word answers. You ask how they feel about something and they just say “fine.” Or, you tell them you’re upset about something. Their reply? “Whatever.” By refusing to engage in conversation, they’re being immature and unfair.
- Withholding physical affection as a form of punishment. This is borderline abusive behavior. Just because you’re upset with one another doesn’t mean you don’t still care. Sometimes stonewalling isn’t just about verbal communication. It can be about physical affection as well. Refusing to hug you or hold your hand or being deliberately cold to punish you for some perceived wrongdoing is not okay.
- Getting up/walking away in the middle of a conversation. You’re in the middle of a very important discussion but they decide they’re ready to go make dinner now. They don’t apologize or explain, nor do they encourage you to follow so you can continue the conversation. They’re just over it.
- Beginning another activity as a way of ignoring the other person. They may not get up and physically leave the space. Still, it’s clear they’ve tuned out. Maybe they start to read a book or scroll down their phone. They know you’re still talking and that you’re upset. They don’t really care.
- Avoiding interaction with the partner so as to avoid having certain conversations. Whether they stay at work late to avoid you or close themself in another room, this is a problem. They’re doing this on purpose. If they see you, they’re worried you might initiate tough conversations. The best way to avoid it is to avoid you.
Why is it so toxic?
While everyone needs time to step away from heated conversations occasionally, there’s a difference between taking the opportunity to cool down in order to de-escalate an argument and stonewalling your partner so that you don’t have to deal with unpleasant conversations.
Stonewalling is toxic for many reasons, one of which being that it’s impossible for the other person to respond to since it renders them powerless.
“Stonewalling creates an unhealthy power dynamic in relationships and can lead to feelings of disconnect, mistrust, and frustration,” explains licensed clinical social worker Steve Carleton, LCSW, CAVIII. “It blocks communication between two people and leads to tension and resentment that can be difficult to repair. Additionally, stonewalling can put one person in the relationship in a position of control or dominance, which can lead to feelings of anger and resentment.”
He adds that stonewalling can also leave a person feeling isolated and fearful, as well as damaging their self-worth as they feel that their partner doesn’t care enough about them to want to engage.
“This lack of communication causes people in the relationship to feel misunderstood and disconnected, leading to further resentment and emotional disconnection,” Carleton says.
Finally, one of the biggest problems with stonewalling is that it completely prevents couples from being able to solve the issues coming between them. Carleton notes that “it’s impossible to reach an understanding or consensus on any issue, leaving both parties feeling frustrated and unheard.” Needless to say, this can eventually end a relationship altogether.
How to respond to stonewalling from your partner
The best way to deal with stonewalling in a relationship is to have an open and honest conversation about how you’re feeling. This may prove difficult given that stonewalling leaves you unable to respond to or initiate these talks, but it’s important that you get your point across and communicate that this behavior is unacceptable.
“You can deal with stonewalling in a romantic relationship by telling your partner that you recognize their pain but that avoiding the conflict only increases tension,” Martinez advises. “Assert your boundaries and needs by highlighting that you matter too and that being ignored isn’t helpful. Try to reflect that you recognize your partner’s feelings and needs while gently letting them know what your feelings/needs are to help come to a comprise in conflict together.”
If they’re still not receptive, you may want to suggest attending couples therapy together. Having an impartial third party present can help alleviate tensions. They can also give you the skills needed to communicate more effectively. If your partner isn’t receptive or outright refuses, it may be time to end the relationship.