You just want to be left alone. You want the person yelling or nagging at you to stop doing so. The topics seem to be recycling themselves and going on some form of rotation in an order established on its own. You are told what you have not done or have not been doing. You are mentally and physically exhausted so it comes down to walking out of this space or shutting down whenever this familiar situation repeats itself.

Just give me a break, you mutter to yourself. You might have even mouthed out your wishes before.

So as you’re being lashed at or pleaded with, you say nothing, do nothing, and basically become a block of wood. You are asked if you are even listening, and you might just nod along, just hoping to be left alone. Except, you actually get more lashings and anger thrown at you as the other person can see or sense your disengagement, and you can see or sense their frustration build up.

Researchers1 classified stonewalling as one of the horsemen predictable of how successful a couple’s relationship will be. Stonewalling is when a person shuts down and detaches emotionally as they feel overwhelmed2. A person can go into stonewalling when they feel overwhelmed or “trapped”, especially when they are confronted or pressured to respond in a desired manner by the other person. Verbal communication becomes a one way street where there is only one speaker and one listener, and the latter actually blocks out the speaker’s attempts to interact by distracting themselves with other activities or simply not responding. This is also often known as the “silent treatment”.


Case (*names have been changed to protect the identities of individuals)

 Jim slumps into his chair as he sits at the dining table. His face is expressionless as he appears to be listening to his uncle lecturing him for quitting his job before he finds a new one. Jim does not know if he is even taking in what his uncle is saying but he sits there anyway as he knows better than to walk away or shut himself in his room. After a while, Jim’s uncle stops and Jim’s body automatically removes himself from the scene by going into his room. Jim knows his uncle is shaking his head in disapproval and mouthing something that is anything but pleasant. In his room, Jim lies on his bed and stares at the ceiling. He knows what he can or is supposed to think about, but for now, his mind is blank and his body feels detached from everything else. Or at least, that is also what Jim wants for now.

There are some expressive behaviours3 that people demonstrate when they are stonewalling and this includes having bodily muscles that tighten, stoic facial expressions, and pain in various parts of the body due to tensions in the muscles, among other cardiovascular and musculoskeletal symptoms. As such, it is easy to identify people who are stonewalling as their physiological responses are observable and their mental states influence their verbal responses. Stonewalling can be energy drainers both for the person doing it and the people trying to understand and support the person stonewalling. In addition to the physical and behavioural changes that are more observable, the challenge is also in understanding the mental disability that stonewalling can create. When a person is stonewalling, they are often feeling overwhelmed with frustration, pain and other negative emotions that put them into a “freezing” state. This “freezing” state is meant to safeguard them briefly or in the moment that they need it. When this “freezing state” becomes long-term, its effects then become insidious.

More often than not, when one person is stonewalling, people around them are the ones who get upset first. They are unlikely to be stonewalling as well if they are able to feel the effects of the person who is doing so. Hence, many people often take on the immediate caregiving role when they feel the negative effects as a result of someone stonewalling around them. If you are the one coping with someone’s stonewalling, the following are recommended by Gottman4:

  • Take a break and share that you’re feeling overwhelmed
  • Engage in self-soothing activities such as meditation


Other possible activities that you can participate in are:

  • Making time to exercise for the endorphins that can boost your mood
  • Ensuring you take care of yourself and your basic needs such as having quality sleep and consuming essential nutrients from various kinds of food


Stonewalling does not just damage relationships that matter to a person. It eats into their mental and physical well-beings as their body freezes and tries to protect itself by disconnecting, disengaging, and other withdrawal behaviours that appear to be un-social or un-participative. Stonewalling shows up in your face as you are unable to smile or lean in closer to the others. You may even retreat or move away from them as they attempt to get physically closer to you. While you should not simply force yourself to do what other people expect or want from you, you can take some time out to consider what to do with their requests or attempts to engage with you. Taking small steps in whatever you decide to do can help you to manage better.

If you’re the one facing a person who is stonewalling, you can also take small steps in connecting with them. It is often frustrating when you feel you are the one making more effort in the relationship while they seem to be “doing nothing” but “hiding in their own world”. It is perfectly normal the way you feel and in a way, the way they are behaving as they are overwhelmed and are in a self-protection mode. You can keep your communication channels open to the person who’s stonewalling so they can work things out or share their thoughts and feelings with you, eventually.




  1. Levenson, R. W., & Gottman, J. M. (1983). Marital interaction: Physiological linkage and affective exchange.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 587-597.
  2. Levenson, R. W., & Gottman, J. M. (1985). Physiological and affective predictors o.f change in relationship satisfaction Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 85-94.
  3. Haase, C. M., Holley, S. R., Bloch, L., Verstaen, A., & Levenson, R. W. (2016). Interpersonal emotional behaviors and physical health: A 20-year longitudinal study of long-term married couples. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 16(7), 965–977. Lisitsa, E. (2022). Stonewalling. Retrieved from
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