Linda: Stonewalling occurs when attempts to work out a difficult issue have not worked. Due to criticism, reactivity, defensiveness, and contempt, feelings are raging so high that one partner attempts to protect themselves through a refusal to engage. There can be withdrawal and silence. Women are much less likely to stonewall than men. John Gottman, a highly regarded researcher about successful marriages reports, “In 85% of marriages, the stonewaller is the husband (In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, page 37). Stonewalling is a dangerous tactic and when heavily utilized, the prognosis for the relationship is poor. Either the relationship will break up, or if the couple remains together, the relationship will be beset by tension and plagued by all the accumulating unfinished business that is not being handled. Consider the case of Randy and Mandy.
Randy: “I realize now that I was a royal asshole. I used to be rigid and obstinate. I had no idea how toxic to our partnership my refusal to talk respectfully to Mandy was. Without knowing it, my silence carried a poisonous message to her, “You’re impossible to deal with. Your perspective is wrong. You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re stupid, insatiable, impossible to please, irrational, and not worth bothering with. I can see it now, and I feel terrible about what a brute I was. But at the time that I was caught in this pattern, I felt completely justified. My judgmental, dismissive orientation created great suffering for Mandy and for me too.”
Mandy: “I was longing for respect and connection while he was deliberately withholding it. When I would weep, he would close his heart to me, scowl, and judge me as a weak wimp. I was living with so much tension back then that I felt like I was walking on eggshells. I was so afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. He would sometimes freeze me out for days. I felt like I was being punished. We cycled through these periods of stony silence until we got some good help.”
Randy: “In the couples’ counseling, I came to understand where the pattern originated. It started in childhood where it was a frequent occurrence that neither of my parents listened to me about what I felt, thought, and needed. My attempts to connect with my parents to feel valued usually met with being ignored or criticized. I picked up some rotten habits learned from my rejecting parents. I continued the ghastly lineage of tuning out Mandy, just like I was tuned out as a child. I hadn’t connected the dots before the counselor helped me to see it. The way out of my downward spiral occurred when I would remember that vulnerable boy that reached out for a caring contact with my parents and was not met. When I allowed myself to feel the hurt and sorrow of that tender-hearted boy who missed the loving connection he longed for, I was able to have empathy for Mandy’s longing to connect to me.”
Mandy: “As you can well imagine, it was a happy day in my life when Randy became more self-aware. It was wonderful to hear his apology for all those many times when he was the Ice King. But what has meant so much more to me is that the old silent treatment is now becoming a part of our past. I no longer feel like I’m walking on eggshells. When he stopped the denial about the pain of his childhood, admitting how often he had been dismissed, held in contempt, seen as a bother and a pest, he owned up to it and stopped putting all that on me. Hallelujah!”
Randy: “I didn’t realize that shutting her out so often was making her afraid of me. I really don’t want her to be afraid of me. It’s taken many, many months of practicing, but by making room for my old pain, I’ve become sensitive to Mandy’s pain. Rather than turning my cold shoulder, I turn to face her to listen respectfully and engage. I feel a whole lot better about myself these days.”
Mandy: “And that’s made all the difference in the world.”
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