Gaslighting and stonewalling are two behaviors that can be damaging to relationships, but can be countered with boundaries.
The truth is, you or your loved one may very well care about your relationship — and a lot. However, without the proper conflict resolution skills, we can become overwhelmed with emotion.
If you don’t know what to do or say in a conflict, you might turn to tactics like stonewalling or gaslighting to cope.
Knowing what these behaviors look like can help you work to counter them or set boundaries when you see them in others.
Stonewalling and gaslighting are two behaviors that may:
- be defense mechanisms
- signal interpersonal aggression
- be ineffective ways of coping
- be a form of manipulation
They can be just one or several of these things at once.
What is stonewalling?
According to the work of relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman, stonewalling is one of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” This is a metaphor for communication styles that are damaging to relationships.
The Four Horsemen include:
Gottman found that when these four things are present in communication, they’re signs that a relationship will fail if not addressed.
According to the Gottman Institute, 85% of the men studied who were in heterosexual relationships stonewalled their partners, but when women stonewall, it’s more likely to predict divorce. Researchers also found stonewalling can cause your body to stay in a state of physiological arousal — like an increased heart rate — which can make it harder to calm down and step back.
How it looks
Stonewalling can look like shutting down or acting as if the other person is invisible. Someone might:
- physically leave the conversation or room
- get on social media or start texting during an argument
- suddenly shift and start speaking to someone else
- busy themselves with other tasks
What is gaslighting?
The term gaslighting originally comes from a 1940s film adaption, “Gaslight,” based on a book and play.
The story’s premise is that a husband manipulates his wife into questioning her own sanity, all so he can take control of her inheritance. One way he manipulates her is by dimming the gaslights and blaming it on her imagination.
According to 2018 research, in most instances, the person who’s gaslighting works to make the other person believe that their thoughts, perceptions, or beliefs are mistaken.
Dr. Robin Stern told NBC News Better that there’s usually some power dynamic at work when one partner gaslights.
The person who’s manipulating holds enough power, Stern says, that the individual on the receiving end is scared to “rock the boat,” in fear of losing the relationship or losing cred in the gaslighter’s eyes.
While many people associate gaslighting with narcissism, many who gaslight aren’t necessarily acting with malicious intent.
How it sounds
The National Domestic Violence Hotline shares some examples of gaslighting. Does any of this sound familiar?
- Denial: “That’s not what happened! I’ve never done that.”
- Diverting: “You’re just imagining things. What’s going on inside your head?”
- Trivializing: “Why are you blowing this out of proportion? You’re getting angry for no reason.”
- Countering: “You told me ___, you don’t remember anything!”
- Stereotyping: “Oh, so you’re not going to tell me ___? That’s just like a man.”
- Withholding: “I’m not going to sit here and listen to this again. I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
Stonewalling and gaslighting don’t just affect a partner on the receiving end. Parents, kids, roommates, or friends can also be hurt or impacted by the manipulation.
When a child stonewalls their parent:
- It usually stems from feeling overwhelmed.
- Both caregiver and child can become increasingly resentful.
- It can be used to manipulate or as an act of resistance.
According to Gottman, stonewalling can be used as a form of manipulation or punishment and not just a way to avoid conflict.
Teens may shut down or stonewall parents during the high-stress period of puberty. A teenager might find it challenging to manage their expectations, especially from one social group to another.
When a parent is faced with stonewalling from their child, they may become frustrated and emotionally exhausted. This can lead to both parties shutting down.
If parents become more upset and punish their children, it can perpetuate a cycle.
When a parent stonewalls their child:
- It can cause chronic anxiety or anger in the child, which may be replicated in future relationships.
- It may create attachment issues.
- It could spur hyperarousal, a symptom of PTSD.
When a parent stonewalls a child, it may look like giving them the silent treatment or refusing affection or connection as a form of punishment.
The attachment theory in psychology explains how children need to know their parents are there for them and trust them.
In Dr. Carol George’s book, “Disorganized Attachment and Caregiving,” she says that having a secure attachment style acts as a buffer, while an insecure attachment style leaves folks at risk to develop issues like:
- low self-esteem
- poor ego resilience (the capacity to adapt emotional impulses to social settings)
- inadequate problem-solving skills
When a child gaslights a parent:
- The parent must set boundaries.
- It’s a form of manipulation.
- It’s not your fault. You and your child both need support.
It can often be hard for a parent to believe that their child is manipulating them in this way. Seeking outside support for your child may be the best thing you can do. If a child continues to manipulate without learning other ways to resolve conflict, they may bring this into adulthood.
When a parent gaslights a child:
- The child may live in a constant state of uncertainty.
- It can create challenges developing a sense of self and self-reliance.
- The child may start looking to others for validation and potentially become a target for abuse in the future.
The same 2018 research mentioned earlier looked into the effects of parents gaslighting their transgender children in therapy sessions. Some forms of their gaslighting includes:
- deferring actions, or not doing something for their child on purpose
- intentionally forgetting things
- putting emotional burdens on their child (aka scapegoating)
Gaslighting and stonewalling are two types of tactics folks use (whether knowingly or otherwise) when they don’t feel in control of a situation or conflict.
But with knowledge comes the power to make difference choices.
Whether you feel like you’ve been on the receiving end of gaslighting or stonewalling, or you’ve leveraged these behaviors when upset, you have options.
Working with a therapist is a great way to learn coping skills and find alternative behaviors. This might look like:
- learning how to set boundaries
- discovering how to honor other people’s boundaries
- self-soothing when you’re feeling overwhelmed
- learning how to effectively communicate your needs with people in your life
The most important thing is not to give up on yourself, your relationship, and your healing. Help is available.
DRK Beauty Healing is a mental health and wellness company for Black, Latinx, Indigenous, South Asian, East Asian, and all women and nonbinary People of Color to discover, experience, and create their unique well-being journey. They offer free therapy through their nonprofit initiative, one of America’s leading free mental health resources. They also provide access to a broad range of affordable resources (e.g., support group sessions) from culturally responsive therapists, faith-based teachers, and practitioners of various spiritual, healing, and occupational modalities. DRK Beauty Healing believes its holistic approach to healing will ultimately empower People of Color across the globe to forge their unique path to wellness.