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Is Stonewalling Abuse?

Updated: Jun 26

Recently,I posted a few sample texts you can send your partner if they are stonewalling you. Stonewalling is one of the Gottman's "Four Horsemen" - harmful relationship behaviors that predict divorce.


Stonewalling happens during conflict when one partner becomes so physiologically "flooded" (feeling intense emotions they don't have the tools to cope with) that they shut down. Stonewalling can LOOK like a more malicious "silent treatment" where your partner uses silence to gain power or hurt you. What differentiates the two is your partner's internal state, how they feel inside. Either way, trying to talk to someone who won't respond to you still sucks.


So we are using shared language, I'm writing here about stonewalling as defined by the Gottman Institute, which is caused by flooding, not a strategy to punish your partner or gain power.


When I posted ideas to text your partner if they're stonewalling you, many people shared that they found the words really helpful. You want to signal to your partner that they are safe, and that it is okay for them to return to the conversation when they calm down.


But others pushed back - isn't stonewalling abuse?


Let's break it down.


Abuse Happens In Context

Context matters SO much when we're talking about abuse. This is not to say that some abuse is excusable, but that picking one behavior out and saying "that's abusive" is not too helpful.

Let's consider some "simpler" examples before exploring stonewalling.


I bet we can agree that calling your partner nasty names is abusive. Don't tear down your partner with your words.


But... context still matters. What if your partner is calling you nasty words because you are hurting them physically? Does it really make sense to say, "well, that's still abusive" if you're using your voice in self-defense against your partner's aggression? No, probably not.


Let's do another example, this one's a little stickier. You and your partner are BOTH calling each other nasty names or implying really negative things about each other's character. It feels to you like they are being meaner while you're just objectively describing their behavior. But ask them, and they say you're the one really throwing down.


In this case, yes, name calling IS an abusive behavior, but it's quite possible both people are enacting that abuse. We would need to know more about the broader relationship to fully understand what is actually happening in this interaction.


Finally, let's turn to stonewalling.

Your partner is monologuing about how much you've disappointed them in some way. They are speaking in a contemptuous, disgusted tone. They don't call you any names, but their meaning is clear - you're pathetic.


You shut down. You stop responding. You sit through the conversation, but you don't say a word. Finally they give up, walk away, and you have space to calm your body.


Let's be clear - stonewalling is still an unhelpful response here. It would be so much better if you could articulate, "your words are hurtful. I'm not okay being talked about that way. I'm going to walk away and get some space, and I'll be back when I've cooled off to see if we can try again respectfully."


But is it particularly helpful to single out the stonewalling in that interaction and say, "that's abusive?"


No, because the entire context matters. The solution isn't just to fix the stonewalling, it's to fix the whole way you and your partner are approaching hard conversations. The solution is relational, not individual.


When Stonewalling IS Abusive

More nuance coming up. Can a pattern of stonewalling be an abuse tactic? Yes it can, even when it's coming from a place of physiological overwhelm rather than malicious intent. Rigidly responding to any friction with your partner with a shut down response is a failure to take proper accountability for your own mental health and its impact on others. The outcome, regardless of intent, may be that your partner feels they need to walk on eggshells to avoid shutting you down. They can't speak to you honestly, because you'll throw up the stony wall.


This is a real dynamic, and it can be important to call out.


But it can be too tempting to lean on these extremes when talking about something like stonewalling. "But what if your partner NEVER wants to talk about heavy stuff?" or "What if they ALWAYS refuse to come back and talk about it when they're calm."


I'm not saying these extremes aren't real. But much more often, the couples I support present in a messy middle, where stonewalling is just one part of a complex tapestry of behaviors that explain why the relationship is the way it is.


Takeaways:

  • Stonewalling can be abuse, but like most other harmful behaviors, we need to understand the context in which it happens in order to make meaning of it.

  • Even when your partner isn't trying to hurt you, it sucks to be stonewalled. And YOUR behavior may be a meaningful part of why they are stonewalling you.

  • Simple beliefs like "stonewalling is abuse" tend to fall apart when we're talking about real life relationships.


More From Me:

For partners in California, Oregon, or Minnesota, I provide evidence-based couples therapy for high conflict relationships.


If you live elsewhere, I created the The Take A Break Guide to help high conflict couples increase their relationship safety quickly.


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