It all started with a text that said, “Next time, could you please just give me a heads up that you are coming by.” Nearly a year went by without a word from her following that text. It was confusing and frustrating, and I couldn’t wrap my head around the hate I always seemed to provoke from my family. “This can’t be healthy,” I thought. “It couldn’t be how other families dealt with their problems…or was it?” Turns out there’s a term for it-Stonewalling. And it’s not normal. In fact, it’s a form of emotional abuse. But since I didn’t understand what it was or what it does to a relationship, I thought you’d also want to know, so I’m going to dive into all the things here. So if you’ve ever wondered what stonewalling in a relationship looks like, you’re in the right place. And by “relationship”, I literally mean this could be applied to any relationship-parent, partner, or friend…it all presents in the same toxic manner.
What is Stonewalling in a Relationship?
If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a list of behaviors your family does that you’ve known were dysfunctional, but they’re so dysfunctional that they made you question your own sanity a few times. And if you’re anything like me, you’ve now identified most of these behaviors as emotional abuse. (anyone?) When I first heard of stonewalling, I was like, “OMG! There’s actually a term for it?!” I had never even heard of “stonewalling” until I began my journey toward personal development, so my assumption is that you likely aren’t seasoned on the term either, so let’s start there. But odds are that you’ve probably heard terms like giving the cold shoulder, passive-aggressive behavior, or silent treatment, and all of these have roots in stonewalling.
Like the name sounds, stonewalling is the refusal to communicate as a result of overwhelming feelings and emotions. It’s not necessarily out of manipulation but more as a result of the inability to manage complex emotions. As a result, they need to create distance to make themselves feel safe
Let’s say there’s been an argument that upset a loved one. Normal conflict resolution involves talking things out, taking responsibility, gaining perspective from both sides, apologizing, and making compromises.
But someone who stonewalls in a relationship might do this instead:
- Refuses to talk (for days, months, or even years)
- Minimizes your concerns
- Flees a situation out of anger without explanation
- Avoids difficult conversations at any cost
- Ignores you & treats you like you are invisible (while in the same room)
- Leaves the room when you walk in
- Uses body language to reinforce their disdain for you (like rolling eyes, turning their backs, etc.)
- Changes the subject or refuses to respond to your questions when you try to talk
- Refuses to acknowledge the stonewalling behavior
It is important to realize that this behavior isn’t always easy to spot, and there is a drastic difference between needing time and space to cool off during a heated conversation and stonewalling. Communicating your need for space or setting a boundary with another person should not be confused with stonewalling. The biggest factor in differentiating the two is communication. Setting a boundary or needing space, by definition, requires that you communicate that to the other person. Stonewalling is void of communication altogether. It’s a dead signal.
What Causes a Person to Stonewall in their Relationships?
Stonewalling is often learned during childhood (like so many other toxic behaviors, and why it is so important to have your shit together before becoming a parent, but that’s for another blog post). Often, children witness their parents stonewalling and avoiding conflict to keep the peace within the household, and this learned behavior becomes their go-to when conflict arises.
When a person is too timid and afraid to confront issues and instead resorts to stonewalling, it is important to realize that underneath this behavior are feelings of powerlessness, fear, and low self-esteem. Understanding this piece has helped me cultivate more empathy as a recipient. While there are times that stonewalling can be used to manipulate, the most common reason a person resorts to this kind of behavior is as a defense mechanism to compensate for a lack of emotional maturity. They simply don’t know know how to peacefully resolve difficult situations and may fear escalation. Because emotionally immature people struggle to express their feelings and needs in a healthy way, they express themselves in less-than-ideal ways-like stonewalling. Emotionally immature people often blame others for their negative emotions, and stonewalling is a method of placing blame outward. While at the surface, this can seem aggressive and manipulative, underneath, there is a different battle being fought-one of powerlessness and fear, and knowing that can give space for empathy, even if we chose to disassociate.
What are the Effects of Stonewalling in a Relationship
I am going to speak to the effects on a personal level here.
It’s painful. But it’s painful to both parties. The result of being emotionally immature is just as toxic to the emotionally immature person as it is to the recipient. It leaves them void of love and happiness too.
As a stonewall-ee, I can say this much about the effects: it starts with feelings of abandonment and isolation and slowly morphs into feelings of worthlessness. It messed with my self-esteem and made me question if I was even a good enough person worthy of love. While my experience with stonewalling was a result of toxic parenting, the same effects are true in any relationship. Therefore, it is bound to have devastating effects on a relationship. A relationship is not sustainable when good communication is non-existent (more on the importance of communication here).
And let’s just be clear on one thing: Stonewalling is a form of emotional abuse.
So How Can we protect ourselves From Stonewalling Behavior?
- 1. Get help.
If you care enough about the relationship, you get help. Honestly, trying to explain to another person that stonewalling is toxic to a relationship will be nearly impossible. Because, by definition, stonewallers don’t see themselves as the problem. There’s no easy way to put it. Suggesting someone needs help typically only exacerbates the conflict, leading to more stonewalling. It’s a perpetual cycle that is difficult to get out of once you’re in it. (Oh and in case you’re interested, that’s what I do! Learn more about working with me here).
- 2. Work on your own Emotional Maturity.
Emotional maturity is twofold. The stronger you get, the better your boundaries get, and the less affected you become by the actions of others.
- 3. Get Rid of Toxic People.
I know this might sound cold-hearted, but when you are ready to step into the person you are meant to be, you have to eliminate toxic people from your life. It sucks, but it’s the truth. Have enough self-respect to know that for every person you choose to eliminate from your circle, there’s another waiting for you on the other side, ready and willing to treat you right.