Emotional abuse can be confusing as hell. The person who is inflicting the abuse doesn’t hit you, slap you, shove you. They may not have a confrontational presence or raise their voice when they speak to you. But their behavior is belittling, painful, divisive, and cuts you down at every turn. You learn that their love for you is conditional, you feel like you must be a worthless, awful person, and you learn to live in fear—of your abuser, and of yourself.
The truth is, many people who experience emotional abuse live many years in denial that it’s even happening. That’s because most of us grew up with the picture of an abusive situation that may look very different than emotional abusive situations often look.
When I experienced emotional abuse as a child, my stepmother didn’t hit us. She didn’t even threaten to hit us. Yes, voices were raised, and sometimes items were even thrown in our direction. But perhaps the harshest part of the abuse my brother and I experienced was completely silent.
We were stonewalled constantly by our abusive stepmother. She would rage and yell while we stood there, completely speechless and helpless. Then she’d disappear. She would either leave the house or lock herself in her room. Sometimes she wouldn’t speak to us for hours. Sometimes days. We weren’t allowed to talk to her about what happened. There was no processing it. She was disengaged and MIA.
Now, stonewalling—which is the act of shutting down and not being willing to talk to someone during or after a conflict—can look different for everyone. And while it’s never great, stonewalling has degrees of seriousness. It’s not always abusive, either.
As Verywell Mind explains, there is “unintentional stonewalling,” where you’ve had a difficult moment with someone, and you shut down emotionally because it’s too much for you emotionally, or you want to avoid a fight. Most of us have done this at one point or another, and this can be a kind of emotional preservation.
But then there’s “intentional stonewalling,” where you basically give someone the “silent treatment.” In these cases, “stonewalling is used to manipulate a situation, maintain control in the relationship, or inflict punishment,” Verywell Mind explains.
And yes, this is where stonewalling behavior can become downright abusive.
As Verywell Mind describes it, “[i]f stonewalling is used to control, belittle, disrespect, or demean the other person, it may be a form of emotional abuse.”
When abusers go silent on you, it can actually feel traumatizing. In my own experience of stonewalling, I was already feeling raw and hurt from the horrible things that were said to me and the rage that was unleashed at my brother and me. I would be shaking from fear at times, and then I’d be forced to sit there in silence, abandoned by my abuser.
What ended up happening—and this is common is stonewalling situations—is that I would start to feel like I was that one who had done something wrong. My abuser wouldn’t talk to me about the altercation we just had, so I had to sit there stewing, letting my mind spin.
There was no responsibility taken by my abuser, so I began to assume that I was to blame for what had happened. Mind you—I was literally a child. But that’s how it felt.
Obviously, stonewalling isn’t just something that happens to children. In fact, stonewalling is most often thought of as something that happens in romantic relationships and marriages. But it can happen in any kind of relationship, including friendships and work relationships.
A close friend of mine experienced this with her boyfriend a few years ago. They were going through a rough time, facing things like job loss and having to move. They were in ongoing arguments related to these things. Then, one day, they had a huge fight and her boyfriend blew up at her, saying he thought they needed to end their relationship.
Naturally, she was upset and on edge. But after he said that and saw how upset she was, he decided that he couldn’t talk to her for a while. That sounded maybe reasonable—after all, it’s understandable that you might need time to “cool off” after a fight.
But then hours stretched into days, and eventually he refused to speak to her for a week. Then another week. She was crying in his presence and he would not engage. This ended up being an extreme case of stonewalling, and revealed some of the abusive tendencies that her boyfriend had had all along.
The sad part of all this is that my friend ended up justifying his behavior. She thought that maybe she had been coming on too strong in their fights, and that’s why he shut down. She kept telling me that he was a really good person, and that none of what was happening was violent or abusive.
It’s pretty amazing what people are willing to fool themselves into thinking, isn’t it? My friend’s boyfriend wasn’t willing to talk to her for weeks, even though they were living under the same roof. Eventually—I don’t know how exactly—things resolved, and things are “okay.” But I have continued to be very concerned about this relationship and my friend’s situation.
Now, again, there are degrees to stonewalling, and the two examples I gave were both examples of abusive stonewalling and extreme stonewalling. Most cases of stonewalling don’t involve being unwilling to talk to someone for hours on end, or weeks. Most of the time, it’s about shutting down, and in many cases, it’s a defense mechanism.
But it’s important to understand that needing a break is one thing, and shutting down in order to hurt someone, gaslight them, control, or punish them is never okay. If you are in a relationship where this is happening, please consider reaching out for help.
In some cases, with therapy or counseling, there will be a way to rectify things. But sometimes, a person who uses stonewalling in a toxic way will be unwilling to work on the behavior, and the best idea will be to end the relationship with them.
If you can get out of this type of relationship, please consider doing it sooner than later. You owe it to yourself to be in a relationship with someone who is loving, attentive, emotionally present, and willing and able to discuss even the most difficult topics with you.