Stonewalling in Marital Relationships

Stonewalling: How to recognize and fix stonewalling in marital relationships.

Upset Man Holding Newspaper, Sitting on Bed
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Stonewalling is defined as a. To engage in delaying tactics; stall: b. To refuse to answer or cooperate.

The best description I've read of stonewalling comes from, Jeffrey J. Pipe, PsyD."In relationships, stonewalling is the emotional equivalent to cutting off someone’s oxygen. The emotional detachment inherent to stonewalling is a form of abandonment and the effect that it has on a spouse is dramatic. The initial feelings of terror which are usually below the water line of awareness are typically followed by secondary feelings of anger and, then, aggressive efforts to get some emotional reaction any emotional reaction even a negative one. And when these efforts fail, the internal response for your spouse is predictable. He doesn't care. He doesn't love me. He's left me." 

What exactly does stonewalling look like in a marriage? From the description above, emotional detachment and feelings of abandonment leave the victim spouse reeling with doubt, anger, and doubt of an emotional connection with their spouse. 

Below are 4 examples of stonewalling in a relationship

1. Your wife has done something that hurts your feelings or, there is a problem in the marriage that you wish to discuss with her. Your attempts to communicate your feelings over the situation are met with silence. Her way of avoiding conflict is to refuse to participate in the conversation.

2. Your husband spends all weekend watching sports instead of participating in family activities. You sit with him, explain to him that you don’t have a problem with him watching sports but would like for him to take a few hours of his weekend to spend with the family. He responds by folding his arms and muttering, “whatever.” Then he is back to watching the game. He is totally disconnected from the family and what the family needs from him.

3. Your wife is a shopaholic, so much so that you begin to worry about the financial repercussions of her spending habits. You feel a need to discuss the problem with her and set some boundaries on her spending. Half way through the conversation she changes the subject; it is no longer about her shopping but now about how much time you spend at work. Her taking the spotlight off of her faults and shining it on yours is a display of smugness. “How dare you point out my flaws, when you have flaws of your own.”

4. You are not happy with the lack of intimacy in your marriage. Your husband shows no interest in you or sex with you and it is time to communicate the level of pain and rejection you are feeling. You tell him you are worried about the lack of sex in the marriage, that you want to come up with some solutions to this problem and he walks away. He removes himself from the conversation and the room altogether. He has already distanced himself from you intimately, now he is distancing himself from you physically. Not only does he not want sex with you, he doesn’t want to talk to you either. OUCH!

Use of extreme, stonewalling is a way for one spouse to manipulate the other spouse into getting what they want.

Stonewalling is a dismissal of what is good for the marriage and both spouses in favor of what is good for the one spouse.

Men are more prone to stonewall in a relationship because they feel overwhelmed when a wife wants to “talk feelings” or “discuss problems.” We often hear men accuse their wives of “nagging” which, more often than not is in response to their stonewalling her and her need to discuss marital problems.

Not that women don’t stonewall which results in as much damage but men, who are wired to withdraw and think about a problem, are more likely to use this avoidance tactic more often than women who are more open to communicating feelings and needs.

According to John Gottman, "A marriage succeeds to the extent that the husband can accept influence from his wife. If a woman says, 'Do you have to work Thursday night? My mother is coming that weekend, and I need your help getting ready,' and her husband replies, 'My plans are set, and I'm not changing them'. This guy is in a shaky marriage. A husband's ability to be influenced by his wife (rather than vice-versa) is crucial because research shows women are already well practiced at accepting influence from men, and a true partnership only occurs when a husband can do so as well."

This is typically what happens, the wife nags, the husband becomes defensive and stonewalls by refusing to engage in communication over what the wife views as a problem in the marriage. The wife nags more and becomes angrier and more frustrated. As a result, you have a husband who is angry because his wife is constantly “nagging” and a wife who is angry because her husband is constantly “stonewalling.”

Stonewalling is a form of emotional suppression

Not only does stonewalling damage the marital relationship it is harmful to each spouse physiologically. Men who suppress their emotions and refuse to engage in communication can experience health problems with the autonomic nervous system and heart. In reaction to her husband’s stonewalling, the level of stress a wife feels can cause her to suffer the same health problems PLUS anxiety disorders and depression.

The key to reducing stonewalling in a relationship doesn’t lie with the spouse who tends to do the stonewalling. It is the wife, the “nagging wife” who holds the key. Bet you didn’t expect that did you?

When a man is criticized he feels his wife views him as the “bad guy.” The fastest way to get a man to shut down is the give him the impression you think he has done or is doing something bad. If a wife wants to have influence over her husband she needs to learn to communicate without putting him on the defensive.

These 5 tips for effective communication by Deborah Spring Laurel is a good starting point when dealing with a stonewaller.

1. Disengage: When we disengage, we set aside differences temporarily, while we remain willing to address them at a later time. It involves taking time to reflect, reduce the tension, and let our emotions settle.

2. Empathize: To empathize is to put ourselves figuratively in the other person's place. That very act will help squelch defensiveness because we acknowledge what the other person is feeling.

3. Inquire: When we inquire, we uncover the concerns of the other person. Asking questions allows us to focus on our task rather than our disagreement. After we inquire, we need to listen carefully, giving the other person our complete attention.

4. Disclose: When we disclose, we reveal our feelings, needs, and goals to the other person. We can do this with "I statements" that describe our emotions, the precipitating event, and its tangible impact.

5. Depersonalize: When we depersonalize, we evaluate behavior rather than the person, and we look at our work as something we do rather than what we are. This allows us to free ourselves and others from the need to respond defensively.