How Stonewalling Can Hurt Your Relationship

By Marni Feuerman, LCSW, LMFT

What Are Signs or Examples of Stonewalling?

Many times, stonewalling in a relationship is obvious. However, it also can be subtle and you may not realize that you or your partner are engaging in the behavior. Signs of stonewalling can include:

What Does Stonewalling Feel Like?

For the person who is being stonewalled, it is normal to feel frustrated, angry, confused, and hurt. It can have a damaging impact on a person’s self-esteem and make them feel like there is a lack of trust and closeness in their relationship.

Stonewalling is not always easy to recognize. Refusing to talk, avoiding conversations, ignoring the other person, and giving someone the silent treatment are a few signs of this behavior.


While stonewalling can be hurtful, you shouldn’t necessarily assume that it is inherently ill-intended. At its very heart, stonewalling is often a behavior born out of fear, anxiety, and frustration. Some reasons a person may resort to stonewalling include:

Stonewalling is oftentimes a tactic learned during childhood. It may have been a behavior their parents used to “keep the peace” or to gain dominance in the family hierarchy.

Even if the stonewalling appears intentional and aggressive, remember that it’s often used by people who feel powerless or have low self-worth. Within this context, stonewalling may be a defensive mechanism used to compensate for these feelings. 

Research suggests that men are more likely to stonewall, due in part to societal roles that place women as communicators and dictate that men are “strong and silent.”

Types of Stonewalling

There are a few different ways that stonewalling might appear in a relationship. These include:

There are also healthy behaviors that can be mistaken for stonewalling. It’s important to note that stonewalling is not the same thing as asking for space or setting boundaries. Asking for time or space requires communication. When your partner asks to discuss something later with the full intention of coming back to the conversation, they are not stonewalling you.

If stonewalling is used to control, belittle, disrespect, or demean the other person, it may be a form of emotional abuse. In such cases, you should reach out to a mental health professional for help.

Impact on Relationships

Whatever the underlying cause, stonewalling can damage a relationship.  Partners who are stonewalled often feel demeaned or abused. They may even begin to question their own self-worth.

Moreover, shutting someone out often escalates the very situation it was meant to avert. It either forces a confrontation, or frustrations build to a point where regrettable things are said or done.

Why Does Stonewalling Damage Relationships?

Stonewalling is a negative and destructive way of communicating. It often causes people to withdraw from the other person, which harms the emotional intimacy in a relationship. As people withdraw, it creates a sense of distance and the people in the relationship may begin to grow apart.

Is Stonewalling Manipulative or Abusive?

Stonewalling can be abusive when the other person does it intentionally and uses it as a way to manipulate or control others. It can be a tactic to shift the blame for relationship problems onto the other person without taking any personal responsibility.

Is Stonewalling a Type of Gaslighting?

Stonewalling can be a form of gaslighting when it is used intentionally to make people question their reality. Gaslighting involves causing other people to doubt themselves and their experiences. Being ignored can leave you feeling powerless and useless.

You might blame yourself or even doubt your own interpretation of the situation. Because of this self-doubt, people who are being stonewalled may feel weak or unable to get out of a toxic relationship.

Overcoming Stonewalling

If stonewalling occurs within your relationship, it’s best to deal with it as a couple. Whether you are the stonewaller or the person being stonewalled, you cannot isolate stonewalling as the problem. Doing so only assigns blame and ends up diminishing the larger issues in the relationship.

Because a relationship is unlikely to succeed without communication and collaboration, you need to find the right tools to “reprogram” old communication habits. This situation is one where couples counselling can help.

Couples therapy is designed to help both partners understand why stonewalling is taking place.  As a couple, you learn to identify behaviors or practices that lead to stonewalling.

Stonewalling can have damaging effects on a relationship, but it is also something that individuals and couples can work to overcome. Couples counselling can be a great place to start. A counselor or therapist can help you learn to spot the signs of stonewalling and develop healthier, more productive ways of communicating. 

If your partner refuses to participate in counselling, you may still find it helpful to talk to a therapist. A mental health professional can help you learn to cope. If a resolution cannot be found, something such as a trial separation or even an end to the relationship may be necessary.