What is stonewalling and how to cope with it in a marriage?


Does your partner:

  • Completely ignore you as though you are invisible in the room?

  • Pretend they don’t hear you and then when they do they will not engage in conversation?

  • Avoid or refuse discussion to address matters that concern you?

  • Turn their back or walk away mid-conversation?

  • Silence you when you try to address anything with them?

  • Not share the details of family outings, budget or their general day-to-day life with you?

  • Refuse to answer texts, calls or emails from you?

  • Respond with dismissive replies that fail to answer your original question?

  • When forced to talk with you, change the subject to your shortcomings and flaws?

You may be experiencing what is known as “stonewalling”.


The effect of stonewalling

Stonewalling can be destructive and damaging and have a severe impact on the victim’s mental health. It's common for physical abusers to also engage in this kind of emotional abuse as a way of maintaining power and control.

Researcher Dr Paul Schrodt reported in his 2013 study that while some partners (especially male partners) tend to use stonewalling to avoid conflict, what happens is that it actually causes more emotional friction.

As the stonewalling partner withdraws further from them, the other partner responds by becoming increasingly anxious and demanding, causing more conflict within the relationship.

World-renowned relationship expert Dr John Gottman agrees that men are consistently more likely to stonewall than women saying, they will withdraw emotionally from conflict discussions while women remain emotionally engaged.  85% of Dr Gottman’s stonewallers were men.

Dr Gottman says that when women do the stonewalling, it is a strong predictive of divorce.


Why does it hurt so much?

According to Dr Gottman, when somebody refuses to talk or communicate, and just kind of shuts down, the effect can be just as hurtful as name-calling, contempt, and defensiveness.

It can be just as emotionally damaging as physical abuse because when somebody shuts you out and won’t communicate with you it's sending the message that they are rejecting you and don't care about you. Because they are refusing to engage you, they are essentially abandoning you, he says. 


How to deal with a stonewaller

  1. If it’s uncharacteristic behaviour, give your partner the benefit of the doubt.
    They may have had a crisis that they are unable to discuss with you. Perhaps they are just overly tired or overwhelmed. So, let it rest. Stop trying to engage them. Let them know you do want to have the conversation at some point when they are ready and that you are available to support them if there is some other reason underlying their stonewalling behaviour.

  2. Take stock of your own behaviour.
    Are you making it easy or difficult for your partner to engage? Sometimes stonewalling can be a response to perceived aggression and antagonism.

  3. If you have made a genuine attempt to address a problem by trying to engage your partner but they still stonewall you - STOP! 
    Further attempts to engage will be interpreted as nagging and won’t make productive headway. There’s a high chance it will only cause things to escalate into conflict. It’s better to just take care of yourself. It’s infuriating to be stonewalled and you will feel intense and confusing emotions. Gottman advocates the practice of physiological self-soothing - taking time out to calm your own agitated feelings and to give your partner the space to adjust their behaviour. Gottman also suggests avoiding wallowing in self-righteous indignation ("I don't have to take this!") or a victim mentality ("Why is he/she always doing this to me?"). To do that is only going to make you feel worse so you are better off to do some kind of activity to shift your mind and your body from the situation, do some exercise, watch a movie listen to some soothing music, meditate etc.

  4. Don't cling to your distress-inducing mindset.
    When your partner tries to adjust their behaviour and re-engages with you, make sure that you are willing to engage in the conversation with a clean slate without dragging the hurt and anger from the past into the present.

  5. Get professional help.
    If his or her stonewalling behaviour is persistent, and you feel neglected and abused, it is advisable to see a counsellor or attend some therapy, ideally with your partner.

  6. Consider all of your options.
    When someone shows you that they are not interested in your well-being, often it's best to believe them and move on. If you feel there is no further point in working on the relationship, then to stay in the relationship, potentially leaves you at risk. Your self-esteem and emotional and physical health are likely to suffer as a result of the continuing abuse from your partner. You may be left with no alternative than separation and divorce. If you have come to the point of considering the complex and life-changing decision to separate, often it is better to discuss your feelings and thoughts with an independent third party. Friends and family are usually biased and whilst they may be a pillar of support, they are usually ill-equipped to offer the best advice. And, if you decide to stay, the new information they have about your partner may sully their opinion of him or her which in turn may jeopardise your relationship's chances of future success. 


How can I help you?

If you are considering or engaged in the separation process, you will find the resources, support and information you need to work your way through that process on the Divorce Resource website.

I am not a lawyer and I can't offer you legal advice and I won't make decisions for you. However, for those who prefer a personal approach, as a Divorce Coach, I meet with men and women who are considering ending their relationship to explore their emotions and add some perspective to the options they are considering. We work face to face in Perth or via video call for those further afield. Some have been successful in rehabilitating their relationships and for some, it is too late but they are we positioned to move to the next step.

When a person or couple make the complex and difficult decision to separate, I am able to offer assistance in a variety of ways. For those who feel as if divorce is the next step but haven't a clue where to start the process, we might meet for regular sessions to explore options, share information about the family law system and consider the potential consequences of their decisions. I can relate to what it's like to go through the process and highlight areas of potential pitfalls and cost vacuums. 

As a Nationally Accredited Mediator, I regularly facilitate mediations with couples who have made the decision to separate but do not wish to pursue a settlement through the Family Court.

For those who find themselves engaging a lawyer and taking the litigation route, I assist your to get a snapshot of the relevant details about your personal, family and financial situation in order before you seek legal advice. This way, you are paying a lawyer their professional fee for their expert legal opinion and not to walk you through the basic admin of the fact discovery process. On top of the emotional aspects of separating, the family law system can be confusing and many people feel overwhelmed. For most of us, attending a meeting with a family lawyer is the first time we've had any interaction with the legal system. I have on occasion accompanied coaching clients to meetings with their lawyers to help them stick to their agenda without getting too overwhelmed so they get the most out of their appointments and value for their money as possible. 

I have established a large network of reliable and cost-effective service providers from around Australia to whom I regularly refer; experts in the fields of family law, psychology, children's matters, financial planning and looking after your overall well-being including redefining your identity, rejoining the dating world and getting back into the workforce. 

You can find out more about working with me by emailing me directly: christine@divorceresource.com.au


Christine Weston Divorce Resource Split Kit

Published by, Christine Weston
Founding Director and Creator of Divorce Resource
Australian Nationally Accredited Mediator and Divorce Coach

The information in this article is general in nature and should not be considered as professional advice. You should seek the advice of a registered professional who will be able to appropriately assess your specific circumstances before offering their expert opinion.


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Useful Resources:

Download the free Divorce Resource 200 point Checklist now

Download e-book now: The First Steps through Separation and Divorce


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