* I generally write using the pronouns he/him when referring to narcissists, but females are just as likely to be narcissists or exhibit narcissistic traits. So please don't think just because article uses the word him or he that it could not be a woman in that same role.
Stonewalling, better known as “freezing” or “the silent treatment,” is an incredibly common behavior enacted in familial, platonic, and romantic relationships.
There are a variety of possible causes that may trigger an instance of stonewalling, which is part of the reason it’s so prevalent. But, Is Stonewalling Abuse?
In fact, almost everyone will have played the role of the stonewall and the role of the blocked multiple times in their life; I certainly have, which is why it’s so jarring to question whether it can be considered abusive behavior.
Let’s pull the band-aid off quickly… Yes, stonewalling can be used as an abusive technique.
Differentiating between “normal” and abusive stonewalling can be tricky, but if we can isolate a cause and any probable motives of the party engaging in stonewalling, we can usually drum up a conclusive answer.
Why Do We Stonewall In Our Relationships?
Let’s discuss the primary causes of stonewalling and how they may or may not fall into the category of abuse.
We Feel Our Partners Should Know What’s Wrong
A classic example of stonewalling we’ve seen in every sitcom ever written (and in our own lives) is when somebody in a relationship lets down another but doesn’t seem to understand they’ve caused any harm.
When the offending party asks what’s wrong, they come up against a wall composed of “I’m fine”-s or total silence.
In this instance, stonewalling is being used as a passive-aggressive punishment.
We want our partners to acknowledge what they have done to hurt us, or perhaps we just aren’t in the mood to communicate because of the hurt.
This isn’t abusive, as it’s a perfectly natural response to being let down; however, if a person in a relationship has unrealistic expectations of another, they may feel justified applying the stonewall to minor indiscretions that others wouldn’t even bat an eyelid at.
If this is the case, there’s still no malicious intent, but it does border on abusive, as it is being used to indirectly bend someone to the will of another.
We Can’t Express Or Are Unsure Of How We’re Feeling
We’re not always trying to hide our emotions and purposefully shut others off while stonewalling.
On many occasions in my own relationships, in certain situations, I have been unable to communicate my feelings or haven’t been quite sure of what my feelings are.
The resulting behavior can feel just as irritating for those on the receiving end, despite it being the completely harmless (in intent) result of not having ourselves quite figured out just yet.
Stonewalling is rarely abusive, but it can shift the power dynamics in a relationship if used with intent.
For example, the stonewalling party may be not attempt to understand and communicate their feelings. At the same time, those on the receiving end may be capable of and willing to share their emotions, placing them in a comparatively vulnerable position.
Protecting The Enquirer
Sometimes we know precisely how we’re feeling and exactly the way we’d like to express it, but we hold back for the good of the enquirer.
This is particularly prevalent in familial and romantic relationships in which someone is living with depression.
This isn’t abusive to those on the receiving end of the stonewall, but, although it’s done with the best intentions, it could be seen as a form of self-harm, as keeping your thoughts and feelings locked in during times like these only exacerbates the situation.
Stonewalling isn’t always a purely emotional behavioral entity. It can have an element of practicality as well.
For those with exceedingly busy lives, the time it takes to sit down, express, and work through emotions just doesn’t seem viable.
Therefore stonewalling becomes a coping mechanism to support a hectic schedule.
It’s not abusive, but it can be a sign that a relationship has become overly mechanical, and the original magic that brought the people together has been long buried by the drudge of modern life.
If expressing emotions was never really a part of someone’s familial makeup when growing up, stonewalling may well be a learned response used to block all requests for an emotional response.
The same principles apply to those who are in some way punished for being open with their emotions in previous relationships.
Stonewalling is a defense mechanism in this scenario, not meant to hurt or cause contention.
On the contrary, it’s used as a stabilization tool; however, despite not being abusive, it can still pull at the threads of a relationship.
In dire situations, stonewalling is used to give one person control over another, allowing them to dominate the relationship.
It will often be used in conjunction with other abusive techniques, such as isolation, criticism, gaslighting, and intimidation to leave another feeling worthless and emotionally malleable.
This is categorically vindictive and abusive behavior used to derail attempts to address and resolve issues, essentially stripping the receiving party of their agency, trapping them in a cell of inaction.
How Does Stonewalling Impact A Relationship
Stonewalling rarely positively impacts a relationship, no matter the circumstances.
The person trying to overcome another’s stonewalling may become irritated and try harder to push for a response, which can make the situation particularly incendiary and complex, especially if the stonewall is a manifestation of anxiety, fear, or uncertainty.
The pressing of those outside the wall can come across as a lack of empathy and patience, which will only strengthen the wall, as the defending party retracts further into themselves.
Another possible outcome is that the outside party simply gives up, amounting to an emotional stalemate in which neither party is willing to engage in any meaningful way, which can be considered a death knell for the relationship.
When stonewalling is used as a purely abusive technique, those who fail to find a way out of the relationship will typically become withdrawn and passive.
Feelings of weakness may keep them from seeking help or attempting to distance themselves from the relationship.
When used with intent, stonewalling can indeed be classed as abusive behavior, but as there can be a lot of sensitive underlying issues, it’s important to be measured and sympathetic when addressing the use of stonewalling.
Come from a place of understanding, and make your intentions to help known. Don’t force them to open up, but lay a healthy foundation for them to do so.
If you feel you’re being met with zero effort and in fact active resistance, it might be time to cut your losses and remove yourself from what could or already has become an abusive relationship.
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- American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy: https://aamft.org/Directories/Find_a_Therapist.asp
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