“He completely shut me out yesterday,” Missy said angrily during a counseling session. She and her husband Jeremy had entered into counseling after what they described as a couple of years of distance and conflict.
“There was nothing I could to break him out of his shell,” Missy continued. “Something I did angered him and the rest was history.”
“How about that?” I asked Jeremy. “Did you shut her out?”
“Well, I suppose I did,” he said sullenly. “She upset me and heaven knows I can’t out-argue her. So, I guess I did shut down.”
“I would rather you do anything than shut down, Jeremy,” Missy continued. “I would rather you yell back. Anything. But your silence kills me. It’s mean!”
“You do understand that your silence is deadly, Jeremy?” I asked.
“I’m not trying to use it as a weapon,” Jeremy said. “It’s a last-ditch effort to save myself. I don’t want to fight.”
Jeremy and Missy are typical of so many couples. They begin by talking about an issue. Emotions become heated, words are said, and one withdraws into stony silence. For some the silence lasts a few moments. For others the silence can last for hours and even days.
Famed researcher Dr. John Gottman has called Stonewalling one of the Four Horseman that is associated with serious marriage maladjustment which can lead to divorce. He says that once a couple begins using this debilitating tactic, the marriage is in serious trouble. I wanted to help Missy and Jeremy take this deadly tactic out of their toolbox. But, they would need to replace it with a healthier one.
“Can you see your part in this struggle, Missy?” I asked.
“Well,” she said slowly. “I guess so. But he doesn’t need to withdraw. I’m not that scary.”
She had quickly turned the problem back to Jeremy who frowned in disgust.
“No,” I said. “He must learn not to put up a stony wall between the two of you. But, would you be interested in hearing what you can do to create a safe place for him to continue sharing with you?”
“Sure,” she said.
“How about it?” I said, looking to Jeremy. “What can Missy do to ensure that you won’t withdraw into your cave of silence?”
He stared blankly at me. “I don’t know for sure,” Jeremy said. “I feel overwhelmed by her at times and just withdraw. It’s a natural pattern for me.”
We continued to explore how Jeremy felt threatened by Missy’s emotions, most importantly, by her criticism. He had a longstanding pattern of withdrawing in the face of her criticism. He often would literally leave the room, with her sitting with painful emotions. This, of course, only served to make matters worse.
No matter how critical Missy became, stonewalling was a very destructive pattern that needed to change. We talked exactly about how to do that.
One, admit that stonewalling is a form of emotional abuse. For as tempting as it is to withdraw in the face of tension and perhaps even criticism, stonewalling is not the way to handle it. Stonewalling punishes your mate for what you perceive them doing to you and only adds fuel to the fire.
Two, deal with the conflict directly. Rather than passive-aggressively withdrawing, speak directly to your mate. Agree to manage emotions so both partners feel safe. One person speaks at a time, with the other agreeing to fully listen. If you cannot talk to him/ her at that moment, choose a time when you can talk about the issues directly.
Three, call for a temporary time-out if you feel overwhelmed. Ask for emotional space, agreed upon by both, rather than punishing your mate with silence. Ideally you will take only a short time to regroup before being able to talk directly about the problem.
Fourth, develop your voice. Learn the art of effective communication, which involves being clear, calm, conciliatory, collaborative and connected. Whereas stonewalling creates even more anger and hostility, developing your own clear voice creates connection with your mate.
Finally, agree on a plan together. Rather than one withdrawing because they feel overwhelmed, and the other being exasperated, create a plan that works for both of you. Explore the power of working together to solve this communication problem.
Share your feedback or send a confidential note to me at TheRelationshipDoctor@Gmail.com and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on my website www.MarriageRecoveryCenter.com and YourRelationshipDoctor.com. You’ll find videos and podcasts on saving a troubled marriage, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage.
Publication date: October 8, 2012