Stonewalling during an argument may protect you from psychological overwhelm, but to your partner, it can come off as deliberate avoidance.

Couple literally and figuratively stonewalling each otherShare on Pinterest
Westend61/Getty Images

Feeling ignored when you’re in an emotionally charged moment can be frustrating. You’re trying to work through an issue, but suddenly someone shuts down and goes unresponsive.

This reaction is known as stonewalling. From the outside, it can feel like that person has shut down emotionally.

If you’re the one shutting down, however, you may be inwardly dysregulated.

What to do when someone you love shuts down

  • take a break from, or “table” the conversation
  • write down your thoughts and feelings to revisit later
  • stay calm
  • don’t retaliate
  • don’t throw an adult temper tantrum
  • do something self-soothing
  • consider professional intervention

The need to “check out” when you’re being bombarded with negativity can be a natural reaction. You may be feeling frustrated yourself, or maybe you’re uncomfortable with the tension.

Without an immediate solution in sight, it can feel easier to pretend your person is invisible. You may stop responding or making eye contact. You might start excessively cleaning to signal you’re done with the conversation.

Keep in mind your shutting down doesn’t make you look good (and doesn’t help anything)

Being aware of how stonewalling is received can help you bring yourself out of it.

If you shut down during intense communication, the other person may feel rejected or devalued. It can appear like you don’t care about them or what they have to say.

They may not understand why you shut them out. It can make them angry or frustrated, and they may retaliate with their own silent treatment.

This can create a cycle of silence and hurt feelings.

Communicate calmy, clearly, and assertively

Shutting down when you’re upset — whether deliberately or as a defense mechanism — doesn’t usually solve the problem at hand.

To reach any solution or compromise, most issues require communication to understand the big picture.

  • Communicating calmly helps keep the energy neutral. If you go into something looking for a fight, you’ll probably find one.
  • Communicating clearly can help get your points across quickly and can help prevent misunderstandings about intent.
  • Communicating assertively doesn’t mean communicating aggressively. Being assertive often means approaching an argument using “I” statements instead of “you” statements.

Asserting how a situation makes you feel rather than blaming or accusing the other person can avoid putting them immediately on the defensive.

A 2009 study found that couples rated communicating anger in an assertive way as more successful than approaching anger from a place of denial or passive-aggressiveness.

Learn to self-soothe healthily

Self-soothing may help you disengage from an emotional lockdown by shifting your energy.

Self-soothing activities, such as reading, meditating, or exercising, can help you regain a sense of calm after an argument.

Though there are many ways to relax, options such as smoking or drinking may cause you more complications down the road.

Write down your thoughts

In the moment, it may be a challenge to get out all the things you want to say. Feeling frustrated by not being able to express yourself may make you feel there’s no point in trying.

Writing your thoughts down can help maintain the dialogue between you and your partner when you revisit the conversation later.

How to open back up after you’ve been giving the silent treatment

  • “I understand what you’re saying…”
  • “I feel…” or “When you … I feel…”
  • “I’m sorry I said…” or “I’m sorry I didn’t…”
  • “I need some time to collect my thoughts.”
  • “Let’s take a break but pick another time to discuss…”
  • “I’m not upset with you. I’m just feeling overwhelmed…”
Was this helpful?

When you feel like someone shuts you out, it can hurt. You may feel unwanted or unappreciated.

Understanding where stonewalling comes from can help keep negative reactions at bay and can help you identify when your partner is overwhelmed or deliberately avoiding.

Keep in mind it’s not about you

Stonewalling isn’t always your partner punishing you for a heated conversation.

For some people, shutting down emotionally is a response to feeling overstimulated. It doesn’t have anything to do with you or how they feel about you.

If your husband or partner shuts down when you cry, for example, it may be because they don’t know the best way to handle that display of emotions. It’s not that necessarily they don’t care about you or value your feelings.

Set mutual expectations

Having an agreed-upon approach to debates and arguments may help disengage stonewalling if it happens.

Allowing back-and-forth replies, having a safe space for debates, and knowing when to stop and decompress can all be fundamental rules for heated conversation.

(Re)set boundaries

Sometimes the things you say during an argument are deliberately hurtful. Setting conversation boundaries, and reaffirming them during calm times, can prevent those damaging quips that can’t be unsaid.

Let them know how their silence affects you

Most people who truly care about you don’t want you to feel hurt. Communicating to your partner that their silent treatment or emotional shut down upsets you can help them realize its impact.

What to say to someone when they are shutting you out

  • “I understand you’re feeling…”
  • “I’ve given you a lot to consider. I’ll give you time to digest.”
  • “Let’s take a breather and come back to this another time.”
  • “I’m sorry I said…” or “I’m sorry I didn’t…”
  • “I’m not upset with you. I’m feeling…”
  • “When you ignore me I feel…”
Was this helpful?

Now that you have more insight into why stonewalling happens, you can help prevent it in both yourself and your partner.

Sometimes, stonewalling becomes a form of mistreatment in a relationship. When it’s done deliberately, with the intent to punish the other person, it may require the intervention of a professional.

Resources for couples looking to find ways to overcome stonewalling include:

Relationship woes? Our advice columnist wants to hear from you!

Submit your anonymous questions here for Sex, Love, and All of the Above from Psych Central sex and relationships writer Morgan Mandriota. Then subscribe to our weekly newsletter to find out if your question is featured.

Was this helpful?