Stonewalling: What It Is and How to Manage

Shut down, closed off, uncommunicative… this is also known as stonewalling. Maybe this describes your behavior, or maybe you’ve seen it in your partner. It’s a term made popular by relationship experts John and Julie Gottman. They coined the term “stonewalling” after identifying a specific negative interaction commonly seen in couples. Essentially, it is a lack of communication, often in a conflict-ridden arena, depicted by one partner withdrawing from an interaction.

Stonewalling is often a sign of emotional distance and disconnect.  Someone has become closed off and emotionally unavailable. As you can imagine, this makes communication frustrating. It’s tough!  It becomes disheartening after making many attempts to communicate with a stonewalling partner. You both may feel defensive and it gets harder to really hear each other.

Stonewalling broadcasts disapproval loud and clear. The stonewalling partner might feel overwhelmed, or perhaps has just checked out. It often looks like “looking away, hardly vocalizing, with concealed facial expressions and a stiff neck.” It’s not just an emotional response, it’s physical too.

There’s no question that stonewalling is negative. However, it doesn’t mean that there is no hope! Awareness and recognition of stonewalling is important. Once you notice that it’s happening, take a breather! Emotions are heightened, someone (or both of you!) is not able to listen, and you need to stop. Thankfully, there are physical signs (turned head, lack of eye contact) that can remind you to take a break.

As a rule of thumb, when you notice your partner’s body language changing and you can tell they are checked out, check in. Check in by asking if there’s a time you could talk about the issue later. Stay calm, keep your voice low, and offer to revisit the concern.  Try to wait at least 20 minutes if possible to allow your bodies to calm down.

If you’re struggling to combat stonewalling, seek help earlier rather than later. Fortunately, couples therapists are quick to identify stonewalling and can help break the cycle and the stress.  Conflict happens, but management is key.

This blog post was written by Taylor Walker, Ed.S.