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How Chronic Stonewalling Can Create a Relationship Prison

A woman who's a victim of chronic stonewalling, looking down and thinking while obviously upset.

Stonewalling is not a term that’s used every day, and when it is used, it’s usually in the context of a business negotiation or maybe a political discussion. For those of you who have never heard of it, stonewalling refers to intentionally refusing to speak or answer specific questions, or to evading questions by speaking around the topic.

According to research done by the Gottman Institute and Dr. John Gottman, stonewalling isn’t just a problem in politics and business, it’s a major problem in many relationships too. Dr. Gottman reports that couples who engage in stonewalling are more likely to divorce. In fact, it’s predictive behavior of divorce in over 90% of couples.

What stonewalling looks like.
While some behaviors within a couple can be found equally between men and women, stonewalling is much more likely to be a technique used by men. It typically involves specific phrases such as:

– I’m finished here

– This discussion is over.

– I’ve had enough.

– I’m out of here.

– Do whatever you want.

– Leave me alone.

– Drop the subject.

– Stop nagging.

Typically, if the other partner tries to continue the questioning or the conversation, these phrases are followed by the stonewalling individual leaving or becoming aggressive and threatening, often in a physical way.

Stonewalling is considered a learned behavior and is often common throughout families. Additionally, men may be reinforced through society to be “the strong and silent one” as a sign of masculinity.

This same technique is also used by narcissists and those in codependent relationships. Not answering and being the aggressive one in a discussion creates a real sense of power, and it also hurts the partner who’s not able to communicate, which is what the stonewaller is trying to do.

What happens when you’re stonewalled.
If you’re the one being stonewalled, the stonewalling behavior creates a prison where you feel alone, unsupported, and to blame. The person controlling the discussion has the power, not only to control information and discussions, but to control your sense of self-worth and belonging in the relationship.

Over time, even when there’s no physical escalation, the relationship is destroyed. The stonewaller is constantly shutting things down, and the other partner never feels valued, respected, or heard. This leads to a breakdown in the ability of the couple to talk, interact, problem-solve, or work together on correcting the problem.

What you can do if you’re stonewalled.
In a relationship, it’s important to realize you can only control your own behavior. You can’t make the stonewaller talk, but you can choose to do things differently to break the cycle.

A good first step is to talk to a counselor or a therapist who’s experienced in working with couples. This can help you to determine how the patterns of behavior work, how to spot your behavioral patterns, and how to create alternative approaches to having conversations.

Working with a counselor can also help you learn new communication techniques, boost your self-esteem, and evaluate the relationship to determine if it’s salvageable or toxic. In many cases, women in these relationships find their partners are unwilling to change, which is a clear indication of the destructive nature of the marriage.

Though stonewalling may be a learned behavior, and the person stonewalling may not realize how much they’re hurting their partner, it’s a serious problem in a relationship that should be addressed.


Sherry Gaba, LCSW is a Certified Transformation and Recovery Coach and the leading Psychotherapist on VH1’s Celebrity Rehab and Sex Addiction. She helps singles navigate the dating process to find the love of their lives. Take her quiz to find out if you’re a love addict, sign up for a 30-minute strategy session, or learn more about how to get over a break up. She’s also the author of “The Marriage and Relationship Junkie: Kicking your Obsession”. Sherry maintains a private practice in Westlake Village, and is a sought after online dating and relationship coach. For more information visit

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