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Is Stonewalling Causing Problems in Your Marriage?

woman stonewalling

The dictionary defines “stonewall” as “to refuse to comply or cooperate.” Does your marriage relationship involve stonewalling? Stonewalling is one of the big four deal breakers or marriage-enders.

Liz and Barry went on a one-week trip to Las Vegas. Their much-needed vacation had been in the works for some time. Both got caught up in the carnival atmosphere for a few days, but then Barry went quiet…

Barry’s body language and facial expression shouted unhappiness, but he would not say anything. He became emotionally distant from Liz. When Liz tried to talk with him, he withdrew even more. A couple of times when she was initiating a conversation, he just turned his back and walked out of their hotel room. Barry was stonewalling.

The only possible way of salvaging their vacation together would have been clearing the air through discussion. Liz wanted to hear what was bothering Barry, so they could continue their holiday. He refused to cooperate. Both were wishing they had never gone on vacation. Their holiday was ruined.

The fundamental problem with stonewalling is that it takes the “relate” out of “relationship.” While one party is stonewalling, there is no relationship—thus causing marriage problems.

A tendency to stonewall can arise from something as simple as parental modeling—that’s the way dad was. Sometimes it is a means of control. Sometimes people resort to stonewalling out of a fear of conflict; they must keep the peace at all costs.

Stonewalling can arise from the rather dictatorial belief that “I am right; there’s nothing to discuss.” It is a tool of the bully, the international terrorist or…the marital terrorist.

If it is the more-verbal partner who ‘knows she is right,’ her attempts at discussion are thinly veiled attempts to convince her partner of something. He withdraws emotionally and refuses to talk, because he believes she will go on and on until he concedes. In this case, both parties are stonewalling. He is stonewalling because it helps him maintain a sense of self while being bullied; she is stonewalling because she believes hers is the only right way and it is her right and duty to bring him around to the truth.

Let me be clear about something. Stonewalling through emotional withdrawal or verbal bullying is not the exclusive domain of either men or women. Both are vulnerable to slipping into the mode of refusing to relate. We have all been there at some time or other.

The important thing is to recognize stonewalling puts your marriage at risk. So break out of it as soon as you become aware of it.

For you stonewallers who withdraw, take some assertiveness training. Put the fight back into your marriage. What have you got to lose? You are killing your marriage anyway.

For you husbands and wives stuck in terminal rightness, get real. Recognize that you can never have a marriage until you deal with this. Yes, you could perhaps bully and bribe your spouse into staying for a few more years, but a master/slave relationship is not a marriage.

Finally, if you are stonewalling to make the marriage so intolerable your spouse will leave, get some backbone and be honest about what you want. Do the right thing.

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Dr. Neill Neill retired his psychology practice at the end of 2013. He maintains an active coaching practice via telephone or Skype with select clients dealing with alcoholic husbands or ex-husbands. Check out his book, Living with a Functioning Alcoholic: A Woman's Survival Guide. http://drneillneill.com

26 comments to Is Stonewalling Causing Problems in Your Marriage?

  • john

    I just finished reading the article, Is Stonewalling Causing Problems in Your Marriage?… Unfortunately, this describes our marriage. I am the one who has to endure the ‘silent treatment’.

    I do not know how to deal with these situations, and am looking for some advice and guidance.
    I do not like these situations at all!

    thanks, John

  • John,

    Stonewalling can mean a lot of things, but one piece of it is usually a lack of respect for the other person…as a person. You could work on (re)gaining respect as a person. If you succeed, great! If not, you might begin to ask yourself if you want to be with someone who doesn’t respect you.

  • my wife

    Save this one, read it a few times. Thought it might be of interest.

  • phoebe

    What if everytime you speak your opinion, or give ideas/options you are told you are stupid, and it is “his way or the highway”. And when you are told these things it is aggressively even if you haven’t stated your opinion aggressively. I feel like I am at the point where “he” doesn’t deserve my opinion. If I say anything in a conversation, I am put down. So when he says he wants my opinion, he just wants to put me down and dominate with his own opinion. I am not a fighter. So I just stay quiet. I would have to say I’m hesitant and sometimes paralyzed to give an opinion … too many rejections.

  • Helping your marriage has two parts, It is the willingness to repair damages and the thing they called IT IS OVER.Save your marriage and bring your love back.

  • Yuri

    This topic is very near and dear to me. My husband did this to me habitually, in a pattern. No matter how I would tell him how detrimental this was to our marriage and how it was affecting me adversely, he continued to do it. It could last for days or weeks on end and either w/ slight provocation or just whenever he didn’t feel like engaging me at all. It was maddening. People get tired of being ignored out of plain spite from their partner. I had the last and final conversation w/ him about how it needed to stop, that we needed counselling–he refused. The last time he did it, it lasted almost 2 words w/ barely a word spoken to me. I packed up my things and left. We divorced.
    When done in a pattern, it is EMOTIONAL ABUSE. When you deny your partner the basic human decency of even speaking to them and do it “just because” you are destroying your marriage.

  • MotherofOne

    And what about the husband who is normally engaging and listening, ready to be involved, who then starts drinking and then becomes highly defensive over the tinest of perceived slights? Two beers (on the way to a six pack plus) and I have a different husband every night. It’s exhausting trying to figure out who is in front of me at any moment. Stonewalling can mean survival.

  • Yes, MotherofOne, stonewalling can mean survival, but only as a temporary expedient while you figure out what you are going to do with your life. Don’t become the stone wall if you don’t want your child to grow up learning to do the same thing.

  • Sangeeta

    Hi, I am going through this phase from past 3 years. We do not fight nor we argue, but I do not live my life anymore. I have 2 kids and looking for a job. I have no problems with my husband attitude, but things are settled in my head to such an extent that nothing seems to move me now.

  • Sangeeta, it sounds like you are in state of emotional numbness. If that’s the case, it no place to live, and you can stay there only so long before something breaks. Get some professional help with coming to terms with what’s going on, and rejoin life.

  • Hey Neil,

    I just got married a few months back and having a lotta problems.
    My wife is undereducated compared to me. at first I thought that it is due to lesser education she behaves in this way.
    On the first night of our marriage I told her i never cry and she outburtedly told me Don;t you worry I will make you cry (literrally mockingly). She has umpteen number of tantrums. She doesn;t want to do anything on her own and wants to be told to do things. I also thought that since we have just been married she doesn;t know how to behave. But she asserted the fact that she doesn;t take any orders from nobody as if I was ordering her to do things. Now we have a servant at home and since she doesn;t want to work, I mean cokking or any household thing ( lack of education unemployability)she started to create doubts in my mind that she would stare at him look for him you know trying to create jealousy kind of situation. She tells me that I do not talk to her properly and lovingly which I find completely false and unfounded. please tell what to do with this kind of situation. I actually am stonewalling limited talking not showing any love she never did. She never shown love to me. I don;t even know If she loves me.
    Please HELPPPPPPPPPPP !!!!!

  • Immature behavior and inadequate socialization are seldom about education.

  • Justme

    I have been in a marriage for the last 20 years. After the first 3 years, I realized there was a serious problem. There is no communication from my husband except about work, weather and traffic.

    For years I told him how I wanted more of an emotional connection. With every discussion, he says not-one-word. He sits there emotionless with a blank stare. He won’t look at me, won’t talk…just nothing. Yet, after my discussion, he will talk about work or the weather and act like nothing was discussed.

    And it’s not just with me…he is like this with his children and our children.

    If there is a death in the family, there will be no comfort or compassion from him. There is absolutely no acknowledgment of our emotions from him.

    I also have MS and when I’m in a flare, there is no concern from him, not about my physical needs such as food, or emotional, if I’m crying out in pain. I am truly alone in this marriage.

    He will not do marriage counseling and heck, I’m at the point that I want out. This is not a life, nor is how marriage is suppose to be.

    I just found out that all the years I’ve tried talking to him, that he thought I was just talking to talk!!! When I pressed further, and believe me, it took a lot to get him to say anything, he said he just dismissed what I said and placated me by saying he would change. Of course it never happened, at least not a lasting change. I am dumbfound!! The lack of respect he has for me is unbelievable!! I had no idea he was thinking that!!!

    I’m a very gentle person, but I also have a lot of inner strength and no one deserves to be treated as such. My marriage is no marriage at all. As soon as I can support myself and figure something out, I’m out of this sham of a marriage

  • Bobby

    Hi Dr Neill,
    I love your insights. I wanted to ask your opinion about a spouse who incessantly uses “I don’t wanna talk about it anymore,” when I’m trying to communicated true feelings about something. As a husband who has no trouble being transparent, it makes me want to withhold my feelings for fear of conflict causing my wife to “put the issue off until another day” (which never happens). I don’t want our new marriage to become shallow while I become passive-aggressive and moody because my wife wants to talk “about my day” as long as we don’t have a hard conversation.

  • Nicole

    Hi Dr Neill,

    Stonewalling was recently brought up in a conversation when I was seeking counsel from a friend regarding my de facto relationship of almost 4 years.

    I am a step mother of two to my partners children. He only recently correctly filed for divorce (with the past weeks). This caused me great shame.

    I am saddened to say that I believe I may actually be the one stonewalling in this relationship. Strangely I’ve never felt confident to air my concerns in this relationship due to the responses I have received. Often I am told it’s PMT, or I’m holding on to things of the past. He is clever and uses text book strategies when speaking to me (like Covey). He is quite the well educated individual.

    The past pains for me – are largely about his ex wife and his behaviour at the start of our relationship. Though separated, things got tangled. Rightly or wrongly I felt unduly treated.

    I don’t think I’ve ever recovered. I think I use stonewalling as a coping mechanism. I shut down, unable to talk for fear of ridicule. I used to be quite emotional before this relationship – I didn’t think it was not immaturity. However I think I have matured because of him but to the point where I am not sure I know myself. I often treat people now with that ‘why are we talking about emotions’ stare. I’ve changed.

    We plan his life we me together. I don’t feel we plan my life with him together – which should be ‘our life together’. I feel I am useful for a house purchase rather than an emotional true love. He makes jokes on the times I have tried to talk about things.

    I am seeing a counselor. When my grandma died it was difficult to get that natural support I thought you would get. It was a trigger for me that something was wrong.

    My question is that I recognize that I’m stonewalling, am I ruining this relationship because I can’t let go of the past (the wounds run deep) therefore I react negatively and stonewall. For me I have reached a point where I am treating it simply. I admit the behavior to myself but try to excuse it because of the past hurt. I can not let go of. I feel very insignificant in this relationship.

    Many thanks – I am close to leaving the relationship for good.

  • coloradofire

    Hi,

    I am living on 2 sides of stonewalling, and not sure how much further I can go. July 4th, my husband had a couple if drinks and then lost it. We were at a place I told him was “my favorite place in the world” and he seemed driven to ruin it for me. He kept asking me if I was done with my dinner because he always wants to eat whatever is left, and I accidentally let the waiter take my plate away with one piece of bread still there. He told me I was selfish and I said getting upset about a piece of bread was stupid. I then went to the restroom, and by the time I got back he was so mad that he said “You b!7$%!” to me in front of my daughter and other restaurant patrons. He then made other threats about how the rest of the vacation would go and left me there and took the kids home.

    I kept low-key the rest of the vacation to try to preserve something, but I didn’t talk much. I walked on eggshells. He does something like this almost every holiday, family event, or vacation. Help!!!!

  • Lisa

    Hi Dr. Neill,

    The main way that I came across this web site was because I was watching a show today about stonewalling and it definitively helped display a light as to what is happening in our marriage. Stonewalling has been a part of our relationship for at least three years now which was about when my husband and I opened a towing business in which the loan is in my name due to my credit score. After he had quit his previous job to work full time in the business he was not at home for longer periods of time in which was due to wanting it to thrive. But as a consequence we didn’t spend as much time together and as a result the stonewalling started. I worked full time while at another job he was working at the business. I now sometime wonder if he was using me in order to get the loan to begin with.

    The main daily pattern typically goes like this: we both wake up and the only things we speak about are the main general things that need done for the day, such as washing clothes, going to the store and etc. Then we’ll tell each other to have a good day and we won’t speak to each other until the very end of the day if we’re lucky. He’s gone all day long and if I call him he sometimes gets annoyed and says that he’s too busy or if I don’t hear him correctly he gets easily annoyed since we communicate differently. I’m usually the one that reaches out to him such as calling me versus him calling me, texting him first and etc. When he comes home at the end of the day which is typically around 11:00 to 12:00AM we barely speak to each other then. I’ll ask him how did his day go or how the other people that he works with are doing and etc. He’ll ask me what I did all day and if I don’t meet his standards of what he believes of what I should be doing he typically responds by saying “must be nice to not have to work as much” in a sarcastic way. I don’t ask intimate questions about us due to the fact that I know that all I’ll get is a snappy comment and that it won’t go anywhere thus this has been a repetitive pattern for a few years now.

    I was recently laid off at the end of December and about five months ago I found out that he had an affair. Grant it that I was depressed and was emotionally withdrawn and part of the main reason was that I was feeling sorry for myself. He kept wanting me to be physically intimate with him at the end of the day which was around 11:00 and I didn’t want to due to feeling ignored all the time or from him being critical most of the time. It wasn’t too long after this that he had the affair. I confronted him about it and what he told me was that he had done it due to the lack of physical intimacy between us. When I found this out of course I was deeply scarred and am still but I also realized that I needed to become stronger inside. He asked me what I wanted to do and I told him that I wanted to save our marriage. His main response was that unless things improved between us physically then he wasn’t planning on staying. Plus I felt that I needed to give our marriage everything that I have in order to save it. (I hate quitting until I know that I’ve done everything I can to solve a problem.) I also told him that he had to cease all contacts with her period. He said that he would. I found out the next day that he had texted her at least four times. I confronted him about it and he said that he was going to end it. I don’t think that he expected me to be able to access our cell phone bill on line.

    Since I was unemployed when this was occurring I started to work at our business to see if it would help us out by spending more time together. There were times in which we did get along alright but more often he would criticize me if I didn’t do things correctly. After being at the shop for about three months he told me that I had to go simply because I was driving the staff crazy by asking too many questions. That evening however after we had this fallout I realized that the other woman was at the shop and he had called her twice that same week.

    So now we’re basically back in the same boat as before and I’m glad that I finally found out about stonewalling since it’s helping me realize which direction I need to go. Thanks for reading my post and sorry that this was so long!!

  • LJ

    Dr. Neill,

    I have been in a relationship with a man for 4 years and we both have children from previous marriages. My boyfriend and my 16 year old son go through periods of getting along well and not getting along at all. With the last occurrence, my boyfriend said he is done dealing with my son. Now if I mention my son to him he says, “I don’t want to know anything about that.”

    He has a grown, married daughter who made it clear 4 years ago that she wants nothing to do with me. I was banned from her wedding and have only had a handful of interactions with her. I’m finding myself becoming increasingly resentful, and have started saying the standard, “I don’t care” or “I don’t want to know anything about that” now when he mentions her.

    I know full well that this behavior is destructive, but I find that I cannot help myself. I have suggested and even begged for us to go to counseling together, and he says an absolute NO, that he will not do it. HELP!

  • Marie

    Dear Dr. Neill,

    My boyfriend of 15 years and I are split up right now, but I have hopes of trying to work it out. The problem of stonewalling started after we had been living together about five years. I found out he was using chart lines for phone sex, even though we had a very active sex life. I’ve confronted him with the add that was clearly his voice and he denied it was him. Then he shut up and refused to say another word. This lasted for days. Anytime I tried to get him to talk about this, he got mad and left. Then he was treating me as if I had done something wrong instead of the other way around. I would just give up just so times that lost count.

    I also lost his respect, if I ever had it. His son also came to live with us and treated me with very little respect. The last thing that happened was his son told him I had said things I had not and he refused to do anything about it. He told me if I did not like it to move out. So I did. But, I have been miserable without him and have been trying to get him to talk to me for months now.

    I made plans to move away from here on the 24th and I told him this in a text. He told me, also by text, that he would talk to me after the holidays if I would promise not to say anything bad about him and if I left him alone until then. I told him I would be gone then. Should I change my plans and stay to talk or will he even follow thru with this talk? I think he just doesn’t want to let me get to far away. Please help.

  • Suzette

    My husband and me of 25 years are at the breaking point. We got into financial trouble, although I had NO idea how bad it really was. I admit I spent too much, but I can’t say it was “reckless.” He always paid the bills etc. and then he was laid off. We had no savings and had to sell our home to pay off the debts.

    Prior to this, I would ask him how much do we owe, he would say, “I’m busy!” and refuse to answer me. I finally said, “I want to know RIGHT NOW exactly what we owe and to whom!” I was shocked when he told me. He had been paying off one credit card with another, etc. Needless to say, we do not like each other any more. Our marriage of 25 years, 3 adult children, now seems like a sham.

    In the past, when we’ve fought, I have threatened divorce since he won’t go to counseling saying “It won’t do any good.” Now he is saying, “When all the bills are paid off, I think we should get a divorce.” I am so angry that he just “suffered in silence” or didn’t directly ADDRESS these serious issues with me!! I don’t know what to think anymore! I am scared of my own future as I have never been a breadwinner, always putting our kids first. I don’t know what to do. We can’t afford counseling and he’s still not employed. We are living on his meager unemployment for a few more months. Then what?! I am looking for a job every day as my part time job isn’t enough.

  • Teresa

    Hoping to Avoid Unhappy Life Together

    First of all, is there any hope in a stone-waller actually changing permanently?

    I’ve been dating someone for 1.5 years and living with him for about 9 months. We’ve been talking about marriage. Since the very beginning of our relationship, I’ve noticed moments of stonewalling. Lately, due to job and money issues, it’s gotten more intense. He’ll eventually open up and tell me what’s going on, but it requires a huge emotional expenditure on my part to get this to happen.

    We’re both in our 30′s, but both relatively inexperienced in relationships. So, my question is, before committing to him longer-term through marriage, is there hope for change? He has so many wonderful qualities, but then this one…well, may trump all of the other great qualities. I told him recently that if he stonewalls me again, I will leave him because of the intensity of the emotional damage I feel is happening.. I gave him suggestions on ways to take a time out and said if I know he’s working on it and I see actual change on his part, I’ll stay and work on the relationship with him. From reading about all of the other people suffering from this, it makes me very cautious and skeptical that anything positive will happen.

    Any advice or feedback from anyone is highly appreciated. Thank you!!

  • Joe

    My wife has stoned wall me since we got married in April of 2006. She would respond to any attempt to communicate with a fight or flight reaction. She would prefer to start a fight and lay the blame elsewhere, instead of talk about problems. She can tell people to read books like Dr Phil’s “Family First” and not read it herself. She can blame a friend of mine for failing our marriage, because he was suppose to be my mentor. She has plenty of support for the stonewalling and none for bridges.

    On top of this, she has constantly brought her parents in to solve problems. They would take a limited perspective and pass judgment, instead helping figure out the problem. They can yell at others, call others who weren’t involved and blame them for the problem, showing that they have stonewalling type issues

    Now I have a daughter that is a stranger to me because her mom and dad took control under the blame game.

  • Fed up

    I hate my husband because he is a stonewaller and I’m done trying to talk to him so I turned outside the marriage and am finally filing for divorce. He still will not leave.

  • Dave

    Well, I’m the problem. An ex-commando who saw a lot of bad things, did bad things and somehow managed to return home. I’m married for 14 years and didn’t have sex for 10 years… I love my wife dearly as a person, but I cannot make myself a participant in the family life (two kids 12 and 10). I always feel like whatever I will say will be wrong.

    I was recently diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and now I feel even worse. Counseling is a waste of time as the only way to make the marriage work is to practice togetherness, but I can’t bring myself to do that. I work many hours, support the family well, but cannot connect with emotions… My wife wants this to work, I too, but it doesn’t… lost.

  • Chris

    My wife did this to me throughout out relationship. She would criticize me and put me down and whenever I tried to confront her about it, in the most respectful way possible, she would walk away, hang up the phone, or tell me she wouldn’t read my long email so not to bother writing. I’d be blamed for picking fights, but I believe I have a right to stand up for myself when someone is putting me down and knocking my confidence all the time. I tried my best. I even tried writing a respectful later describing all the ways she has treated me and how I only confront her with the whole of saving us and helping her change. I suggested counselling for both of us, but she just says I need the help and there is nothing wrong with her. She refuses to own up to the fact that she puts me down all the time and says she is disappointed that we didn’t have a happily ever after story. But I don’t know how it is possible if there is no respect from her side. She filed for divorce last week because, “we weren’t ready to get married and there was too much fighting throughout the relationship.” There was a lot of fighting, but it was all because I would be hurt and put down and whenever I tried to confront her about it and discuss these issues that were affecting me, she refused and would just say, “I’m being too sensitive and there’s nothing to discuss.” The constant criticisms and the refusal to give me the basic human right of being listened to has really shattered my self confidence. I really want to save the marriage and not get divorced, but she refuses to work with me to save it because she’ll only talk about happy things. Whenever I discuss serious material problems she walks away or refuses to read my letter or email.

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