It is incredibly harmful.
Stonewalling can also be known as Demand/Withdraw or DM/W.
So what is it?
Stonewalling is abusive behaviour and happens when a person refuses to discuss a significant issue. Instead of discussing, they will completely shut you down and refuse to discuss the issue you are so desperately wanting to talk about. It is a power play and it will make the person—who is the victim—feel betrayed, abandoned, belittled, invalidated and frustrated.
The person who is trying to communicate may get more emotional and that will further the withdrawal.
Please know: this is not to be confused with someone who responds and says, “I need some time to get my thoughts together, etc.”. A person who is asking for some space.
According to the marital expert Dr. John Gottman one of the destructive communication patterns that contradict love and really destroy relationships is the act of stonewalling or silent treatment. It is especially destructive to relationships because it can make one’s partner feel abandoned and rejected.- psychreg.org
Stonewalling for children
This horrible behaviour is so harmful and will cause much emotional turmoil for a child. And adults who have been stonewalled also feel the pain. My mother “stonewalled” me 4 years ago when I asked her to come forward and tell the truth about my childhood. She refused and shut me out of her life. The subject was “off-limits”. It was the catalyst for my book, My Courage to Tell.
Peg Streep, author of Daughter Detox says, “Children of emotionally unreliable mothers who may appear caring one moment and then unavailable the next—leaving the child in a quandary about whether the Good Mommy or the Bad one will show up— also pull back at the first sign of discord. These children use withdrawal as a way of self-protection and grow up to be adults with an avoidant style of attachment.”
Stonewalling is a refusal to communicate in a relationship. It may take the form of The Silent Treatment. The Silent Treatment is when someone looks at you while you are talking and does not respond, says Dr. Ramani, Clinical Psychologist. It is different from The Silent Treatment. It may take the form of someone who refuses to respond to a message, email or phone call; even if these are repeated. Why? The person does not want to respond to the topic of conversation. According to Dr. Ramani, this type of emotional abuse is used by people who have narcissistic tendencies. It is the ultimate form of manipulation.
- occurs when the person does not want to deal with the issue. It may mean that the “stonewaller” may have to take responsibility for someone. It will be a topic that is uncomfortable for them.
- takes the form of “I refuse to talk about this, and if you bring it up, I’m walking away.” So, Stonewalling silences the person trying to communicate. This is the Demand to meet their expectation in order to talk again.
- gets nothing resolved. The person who is not permitted to bring up the subject, is left frustrated, has uncomfortable feelings and is hurt. The “Stonewaller” hopes that the victim will give up and change the subject.
- is completely toxic. If anyone struggles with “abandonment” issues, they will struggle with this type of manipulation. The fear of silence and abandonment can be so triggering that people will give in.
- in relationships means that the relationship gets stuck. There is no opportunity to be heard. That works very well for the “Stonewaller”. They will not have to deal with the issues.
The family dynamic
People who stonewall can use the whole family dynamic. Anyone who grew up with a parent who used “The Silent Treatment” knows how incredibly damaging psychologically that is. It is devastating to a child to have to deal with this and a child will go to great lengths to draw a parent out of giving them this silent abuse.
The fear of the stonewall means that you have to be careful about what you are saying.
There are many reasons why a person may stonewall. But one thing we must understand—is that there is no compromise. This person refuses to take responsibility and talking about the issue would make them do that.
So what do you do with someone who refuses to talk?
My advice is you will need to make a decision. Are you willing to continue a relationship knowing that you cannot talk about the subject you may want to talk about?
Also keep in mind that the demand-withdraw behaviour has also been linked to mental health issues such as anxiety/depression and anxiety, as well as physical health concerns like problems with digestion and the urinary system.
For me, I refused. My mother to this day doesn’t talk to me. And the only way to have her in my life is to continue our relationship without talking about the subjects I needed to talk about.
It hurt. But it was a decision I was comfortable with.
(I will state that I am not a therapist or medical professional. I write what I research and learn. Everything I write should not be taken as medical advice.)
- Schrodt, P., Witt, P. L., & Shimkowski, J. R. (2013). A meta-analytical review of the demand/withdraw pattern of interaction and its associations with individual, relational, and communicative outcomes. Communication Monographs, 81(1), 28-58. Doi: 10.1080/03637751.2013.813632
- YouTube: https://youtu.be/IhIvZBUfpHo