A Closer Look at Stonewalling: Understanding its Meaning and Definition

What is Stonewalling? Gaslighting? Emotional Shutdown?

Have you heard the terms stonewalling, gaslighting, and emotionally shutting down, but you’re not sure of the meanings or definitions of each of these terms?

I am a certified Gottman trained therapist and I will not only define these terms for you, but help you understand what to do if these things are happening in your relationship.

What is the Meaning of Stonewalling?

In relationships, communication is key. But what happens when one partner shuts down and refuses to engage in conversations altogether?

This phenomenon is known as stonewalling, and it can have a significant impact on the emotional well-being of those involved. In fact research has identified stonewalling as one of John Gottman’s Four Horsemen, which are some of the main predictors of divorce and unhappiness. 

Stonewalling is a behavior characterized by one partner withdrawing from interaction, shutting off emotionally, and refusing to communicate or resolve issues.

When someone is stonewalling, they usually have a blank expression on their face and to others might appear indifferent, callous or uncaring. If you are being vulnerable with your partner it can be very hurtful to look up and see what appears to be an emotionless reaction. You might wonder if your partner is even listening or cares what you are feeling.

Usually stonewalling leaves the other partner feeling ignored, invalidated, and frustrated. Over time, stonewalling can erode trust, create distance, and lead to relationship deterioration.

What Is the Meaning of Emotional Shutdown?

Emotional shutdown is what is happening on the inside when someone is stonewalling. 

We know from the research that even though one appears indifferent on the outside, medical testing tells a much different story.

The Gottman Institute has been researching Stonewalling since the mid-sixties. When they took couples’ vital signs while they were experiencing conflict with their partners, they were able to get a much bigger picture of what contributes to the withdrawal and refusal to communicate. It turns out that partners who were stonewalling appeared bored on the outside, but on the inside their heartrates were skyrocketing, their breathing was strained (often holding their breath), and their bloodwork revealed high levels of cortisol (stress hormone).

What this means is that stonewalling is a result of Fight or Flight. It is the freeze response. So you might think your partner doesn’t care, but it’s more likely that they are feelign emotionally overwhelmed. Their silence is likely coming from an uncertainty about what to do or say next, so the immense amount of emotions stimulates a freeze response if the individual is unable to self-soothe or clearly articulate their thoughts and feelings. 

What Is the Meaning of Gaslighting?

Gaslighting is what psychologists refer to as a “lay term.”

To my knowledge there has not yet been peer reviewed scientific research on gaslighting in romantic relationships, but the term has widely been understood as a dynamic where someone tries to convince someone else that they are irrational or “crazy.” 

The main difference between stonewalling and gaslighting is that gaslighting can be an active form of emotional abuse, while stonewalling is passive defense mechanism that results from emotional overwhelm.

If you beleive that you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, please seek one on one help from a licensed professional. 

Where does “gaslighting” come from? This term comes from the 1938 stage play Gas Light, in which a husband attempts to drive his wife crazy by dimming the lights (which were powered by gas) in their home, and then he later denies that the light changed when his wife points it out. It is an extremely effective form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their own feelings, instincts, and sanity. As a result, the abusive partner has a lot of power (and we know that abuse is about power and control). Indeed, once an abusive partner has broken down the victim’s ability to trust their own perceptions, the victim is more likely to stay in the abusive relationship.

The remainder of this article will focus on stonewalling and emotional shutdown.

Communication Breakdown and its Impact on Relationships

Stonewalling is a behavior that occurs when one partner in a relationship consistently refuses to engage in communication or address issues. This can manifest in various ways, such as avoiding conversations, giving the silent treatment, or shutting down emotionally. When stonewalling becomes a recurring pattern, it can have detrimental effects on the relationship.

Stonewalling often arises from a lack of emotional regulation or a desire to avoid conflict. The stonewaller may feel overwhelmed, defensive, or unable to express their emotions effectively. However, this behavior can be deeply hurtful to the other partner, leading to feelings of rejection, frustration, and a breakdown in trust.

To overcome stonewalling, it’s essential to recognize it as a destructive behavior and take proactive steps towards healthier communication. Here is a workbook for you to do together if stonewalling or emotional shut-down happen in your relationship.

Taking a time-out when one or both parties start to become emotionally overwhelmed is the most effective way for both partners to take the time they need to self-sooth individually instead of continuing to try to keep talking.

When couples try to continue conversations even when they are triggered, the argument can escalate. Sometimes one person starts stonewalling when this happens and the other tries to keep talking in an attempt to connect or repair. 

It is impossible to have a productive conversation when someone is in a fight, fight or freeze state of mind. 

Signs and Behaviors of Stonewalling

The emotional effects of stonewalling can be profound and long-lasting. The partner who is stonewalled may experience a range of emotions, including sadness, anger, anxiety, and confusion. They may feel invalidated and unimportant, as their attempts to communicate are met with silence or avoidance.

Similarly the partner who is stonewalling can feel increasingly paralyzed by fair. They may feel like they don’t want to say the wrong thing to make things worse. They know their partner is suffering and might worry that talking will make things worse.

Both partners in this dynamic may question their self-worth, blame themselves for the lack of communication, and become increasingly frustrated with their inability to resolve issues. This emotional turmoil can lead to a decline in overall mental well-being and contribute to relationship dissatisfaction.

How to Deal with Stonewalling and Emotional 

Good news! Stonewalling is a common and preventable problem in relationships.

Dealing with stonewalling in relationships requires a combination of self-reflection, open communication, and a commitment to change. Both partners need to be willing to address the issue and work towards healthier patterns of communication.

If one or both of you become emotionally overwhelmed during a dialogue, it is a huge mistake to try to keep talking. It will not work. Not because you aren’t compassionate, hardworking, emotionally intelligent people, but because one or both of your bodies are shut down and in survival mode.

Perhaps one of you might be able to express emotion clearly, but the other cannot. It’s not that a stonewaller is unwilling to talk, it’s that they are unable to talk. Try to think of it as someone trying to talk about their feelings when they see a rattlesnake coming toward their bare feet.

Step 1: Notice the Signs of Emotional Overwhelm

Pay attention to the smoke, don’t wait for a fire. It’s good to get in the habit of noticing what’s happening in your body during a fight. If you’re only focusing on the content of what is being said and you ignore your internal physiology, you might overlook the red flags waving at you. Here are some examples of ways that your body is preparing to fight, flee, or freeze:
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Holding your breath
  • Not listening as well as you normally do
  • Muscle tension
  • Vocal tension 
  • Nausea
  • Light-headedness

Step 2: Ask for a Timeout

Honor the warning signs and let you partner know you need a break.

When you are experiencing at least one of the warning signs in the preceding list, it’s better to take a break too early than too late. If your partner calls a break, it needs to be honored, even if you don’t think it’s needed. Don’t take it personally. Their request for a timeout is not an effort to leave you or dismiss you. It is a healthy strategy to prevent unnecessary pain. If your partner wants to keep talking, it is not an effort to control, it is a desire to be close. You are both hurting and you are both trying to stop hurting.

Step 3: Set a 20-Minute Timer That Both of You Can Hear

Choose what works for you: Alexa, an old-fashioned egg timer, the microwave timer, or a cell-phone alert. The timeout should be at least 20 minutes long, but not more than two hours. It needs to be at least 20 minutes because research on stress reaction has shown that it takes from 20 to 60 minutes for the body to return to its pre-arousal state.1 If the break lasts longer than two hours, you risk being distracted by other activities or coexisting in an icy, unresolved environment. 

Step 4: Self-Soothe During Your 20-Minute Break

Use your time to take care of yourself. Time apart on its own is not enough. What you do with these 20 minutes will make or break the success of this strategy.

Marsha Linehan, author of Crisis and Survival Skills: Distracting and Self-Soothing, has done extensive research on how to effectively take care of oneself in an emotionally overwhelming situation.2 She documents the importance of distraction from the stimulus and calming the mind and body. Self-soothing and distracting allows one to have a “wise mind,” instead of reacting to the stressor with raw emotion.

For the best success with your timeout, you’ll need to actively redirect your energy away from the conflict you are having with your partner. Instead, focus on calming your body and mind. Try not to plan what you’re going to say next, obsess about how you are right and your partner is wrong, or make a mental list of all the ways you feel unappreciated. None of these activities will bring you the peace you desperately need from the time apart. It’s natural to be sucked into this kind of negative thinking or even into self-righteous indignation, but doing so will hurt you even if you feel justified in your thoughts.

The quickest and easiest way to redirect your thoughts is through physical redirection. Doing something different with your body will naturally lead to doing something different with your brain. Here is a list of activities to consider:

• Go for a walk

• Take a shower

• Do yoga

• Listen to music

• Write a letter to a friend

• Do a crafts project

• Read

• Meditate

• Engage in a spiritual ritual

• Stretch

• Play a video game

• Do a chore you find satisfying

• Watch a funny video

• Play with your pet

• Lift weights  or do 20 minutes of cardio

• Do some gardening

Step 5: Reconnect and Agree What to Do Next

Once your timer goes off, it’s time to touch base with your partner. You might not be ready to talk about the original topic, and that’s fine, you don’t need to talk about it right away. Maybe you have other things you need to tend to, or maybe one person is calm enough to connect but not in the headspace for a serious conversation.

What you do need to do during this step is commit to a time to continue the dialogue. The more specific the plan is, the better. “Let’s talk about this later” is not good enough. It should be something like, “Let’s talk about this tomorrow morning over breakfast.”

When it’s time to resume the conversation, remember to speak to each other with kindness and respect. HERE is a YouTube video reviewing how to fight fair and avoid John Gottman’s Four Horsemen. Turn off your devices, connect with your partner as someone who likes you, and start your do-over.

More Resources to Help

In Chapter Seven of my workbook I go through the 5-step process in even more detail.  Managing stonewalling in your relationship is an important part of relationship health.

In the Love Is an Action Verb Couples Therapy Workbook, you’ll get a time-out cheat sheet and homework exercises to do with your partner to set up your own time-out procedure. 

which includes worksheets and exercises for you to 

Finding the Support You Need for Help with Stonewalling or Emotional Shutdown

If stonewalling persists despite efforts to address it, seeking professional help can provide valuable guidance and support. Couples’ therapy or relationship counseling can offer a neutral space for both partners to explore the underlying issues, learn effective communication techniques, and work towards resolving conflicts.

A Gottman trained therapist can help couples identify patterns of stonewalling and emotional shutdown. They can also provide an objective perspective and facilitate productive conversations.

Remember, seeking professional help is not a sign of weakness but rather a proactive step towards improving the overall health and happiness of your relationship.

But there are many other kinds of help in addition to traditional couples therapy. Here is a relationship quiz for you to learn whether you need marriage counseling or something else (such as a couples retreat, an online course, or free DIY resources.)