“Going Silent: Why Do I Resort to Stonewalling in Relationships?”

November 30, 2023

Going Silent – A Defence

silent treatmentFor some of us, a common response to stress or conflict is the “silent treatment” — withdrawing and shutting down. You may also have heard of this being referred to as ‘stonewalling’.

If you’re someone who finds comfort in silence during tough times, understanding why you do this and learning healthier ways to cope is key to your mental well-being.

Understanding Silence:

Going silent is like putting up a protective shield. It’s a way to deal with overwhelming emotions, sidestep difficult conversations, or shield ourselves from what we see as potential threats. While it might give us a momentary

Going silent

break, relying on the silent treatment for too long can strain relationships and slow down personal growth.

This behaviour can be detrimental to relationships, as it creates a communication barrier and impedes problem-solving.


Some of the Root Causes:

  • Fear of Being Left Out: Silence can come from a deep fear of being rejected or left alone. This fear may originate from past experiences of feeling unloved or unworthy, creating a tendency to withdraw when faced with potential rejection. It’s a way to protect ourselves from getting hurt emotionally.
  • Trouble Talking About Feelings: Some of us find it hard to put our feelings into words. When that happens, silence becomes our default way of expressing ourselves. This difficulty may arise from a lack of emotional vocabulary, past experiences of being invalidated, or simply not having learned effective ways to communicate emotions.
    The inability to express emotions verbally can lead to frustration and isolation. It may also prevent the person from receiving the support they need, as others may not fully understand what they are going through.
  • Running from Conflicts: Silence can be a tactic to dodge arguments – a defence mechanism, especially if we worry that expressing our feelings will make things worse. People who fear confrontation may believe that going sileavoiding conflictnt is the safest way to prevent arguments or maintain a semblance of peace, even if it’s temporary.

    While avoiding conflict is a natural instinct, chronic silence can strain relationships by preventing open communication. Unresolved issues may accumulate, leading to greater tension over time.

  • Feeling Overwhelmed: When emotions hit us like a tidal wave, going silent can be a way to hit the emotional pause button and give ourselves a breather.Silence becomes a coping mechanism to create a mental and emotional buffer.
    While a brief retreat may provide temporary relief, prolonged emotional shutdown can lead to a lack of emotional connection with oneself and others. It may also hinder personal growth by preventing the individual from addressing underlying issues.

Breaking the Silence: How to Change the Pattern and Stop Going Silent

  • Think About It:
    • Take some time to figure out why you go silent when things get tough.
    • Look for patterns in your behaviour and figure out what makes you clam up.

  • Talk It Out:
    • Practice putting your feelings into words. It might be tricky at first, but it’s a big step toward better communication.
    • Use “I” statements to share your feelings without blaming others.
    • Take a Break, Not a Breakdown:
      If you feel overwhelmed and on the verge of stonewalling during a dialogue, take a short break. Communicate that you need time to calm down but commit to returning to the conversation.
  • Get Help:
    • Reach out to a professional for guidance. They can help you understand why you go silent and how to move past it.
    • Therapy can give you tools to cope and improve how you relate to others.
  • Know Your Emotions:
    • Learn to recognise and name your emotions. Knowing what you feel is key to dealing with those feelings in a healthier way.
  • Set Limits:
    • Establish clear boundaries in your relationships. This can reduce the need for the silent treatment.
    • Communicate your boundaries openly and respectfully.
  • Stay Present:
    • Try mindfulness and relaxation exercises to manage stress and overwhelming feelings.
    • Mindfulness can help you stay in the moment and react more thoughtfully in tough situations.

Dr. John Gottman, a renowned psychologist and relationship expert, has extensively studied stonewalling and identified it as one of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” a term he used to describe behaviours that predict the end of a relationship.
Here’s how you can address stonewalling and improve communication, drawing inspiration from Gottman’s research:

Addressing Stonewalling: Tips Inspired by Gottman

  • Recognise the Signs:
    • Understand the signs of stonewalling, such as a complete shutdown, avoiding eye contact, or physically leaving the conversation.
  • Use “I” Statements:
    • Express your feelings using “I” statements to avoid blaming your partner. For example, say “I feel overwhelmed” instead of “You always do this.”
  • Establish Time-Out Signals:
    • Agree with your partner on a signal or code word that indicates the need for a timeout. This can prevent stonewalling and give both parties a chance to regroup.
  • Reflect on Triggers:
    • Explore the underlying triggers that lead to stonewalling. Understanding the root causes can help address the issue more effectively.
  • Practice Active Listening:
    • Actively listen to your partner’s concerns and validate their feelings. This fosters a sense of understanding and reduces the likelihood of stonewalling.
  • Seek Professional Help:
    • If stonewalling persists, consider seeking individual or couples therapy. A therapist, like Dr. Gottman, can provide guidance on breaking the stonewalling pattern and improving communication.
  • Learn to Self-Soothe:
    • Develop personal strategies for managing stress and overwhelming emotions. This can prevent stonewalling by allowing you to stay engaged in the conversation. 
  • Build Emotional Awareness:
    • Increase your emotional intelligence by becoming more aware of your own emotions and how they impact your communication.
  • Create a Safe Environment:
    • Foster an environment where both partners feel safe expressing their thoughts and emotions without fear of judgment or criticism.
  • Express Vulnerability:
    • Share your vulnerability with your partner, explaining that going silent is a defence mechanism. This openness can lead to a deeper understanding and connection.
  • Practice Repair Attempts:
    • Find ways to ease the tension and change the mood, they might be gestures or statements aimed at de-escalating conflict. These can include humour, affection, or a simple acknowledgment of the tension. 

By incorporating these strategies into your communication toolkit, you can address stonewalling and create a healthier, more open dialogue in your relationships. Gottman’s research emphasises the importance of breaking destructive communication patterns to build stronger connections and lasting relationships.

Breaking the habit of going silent takes self-reflection, commitment, and a readiness for change. Asking for support is a sign of strength, not weakness. By understanding why you go silent and adopting healthier coping strategies, you can build more meaningful connections and move forward on your mental health journey. Addressing these underlying issues involves a combination of self-reflection, communication skill development, and, in some cases, seeking professional support.


If you would like to discuss how therapy might help you with communication,contact Claire at Insight Counselling here.