What Is Stonewalling? The Toxic Relationship Habit You Need to Break

stonewalling couple cat

It used to be my signature “big fight” move. If I had a disagreement with a boyfriend, friend or family member, they’d give an impassioned speech about their point of view and I’d respond with…silence. I’d try to get out of the house as fast as I could, then spend hours (or days) trying to cool off and decide what I wanted to say. Once I had it figured out, I’d come back, apologize and calmly state my side of the argument. It was a conflict-free fighting technique that prevented me from saying anything I’d regret, I thought.

But it wasn’t until my now husband called me out early on in our relationship that I even realized I was doing something wrong. “Do you know how hurtful it is for you to just disappear, when I have no idea what’s going on or how you’re feeling?” he asked me. I hadn’t even thought about that. What I thought was defusing the argument turned out to be stonewalling, an extremely toxic habit it took me years to break.

What Is Stonewalling, Exactly?

Stonewalling is one of the four biggest predictors of divorce, according to Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute, along with criticism, contempt and defensiveness. “Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction, shuts down, and simply stops responding to their partner,” he says. “Rather than confronting the issues with their partner, people who stonewall can make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy or engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviors.” Eep, that’s textbook me in a fight. It’s also pretty much the same thing as the silent treatment, which you may remember from elementary school isn’t exactly the most mature way of dealing with problems.

I Didn’t Realize I Was Stonewalling. How Do I Stop?

Stonewalling is a natural response to feeling psychologically overloaded, the Gottman Institute website explains. You might not even be in the mental state to have a calm, rational discussion right now. So instead of beating yourself up for withdrawing during an argument, have a plan ready for next time. If your partner starts ranting about how you never wash the dishes and you feel like you’re about to start stonewalling, stop, take a deep breath and say something along the lines of, “OK, I’m feeling too angry and I need a break. Can we please come back to this a little bit later? I think I’ll have more perspective when I’m not so angry.” Then take 20 minutes—not three days—to think, do something calming like read a book or go for a walk, and come back and continue the discussion from a calmer place.

What Should I Do If I’m the One Being Stonewalled?

Although it’s pretty tough to make someone stop stonewalling, my husband’s approach was very helpful for me. He calmly explained how my behavior was making him feel, helping me realize that my “technique” was doing more harm than good. He said he would have even preferred I say something I regret during an argument and later apologize than storm out and say nothing. Saying nothing made him worry about me and feel nervous about the future of our relationship. None of that had ever occurred to me until he brought it up.

If your partner listens to your point of view and agrees, but still continues to stonewall during arguments, give them time—often, bad habits are hard to break. On the other hand, if you’re getting the sense that he’s starting to deliberately stonewall because he knows it bothers you, it might be time to call it quits.

RELATED How to Get Out of a Toxic Relationship

screen shot 2020 05 14 at 6 31 35 pm

Freelance Editor

From 2015-2020 Lindsay Champion held the role of Food and Wellness Director. She continues to write for PureWow as a Freelance Editor.