EMOTIONAL MATURITY SERIES: What To Do When Your Spouse is Stonewalling

by | Nov 9, 2020 | Resolving Conflict, Uncategorized | 57 comments

When Your Husband Stonewalls: 2 Keys to Handling Stonewalling Behavior

Have you ever experienced stonewalling in your marriage?

If you’ve ever said something like, “He refuses to talk about it,” “every time I bring it up he shuts me down,” “She walks out of the room if I mention it.” “He tells me he won’t change and the topic is closed,” then you likely have.

John Gottman, from the Gottman  Marriage Institute, calls “stonewalling” one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, meaning one of the four behaviours that wrecks marriages. Here’s how he defines it:

Stonewalling occurs when a listener withdraws from an interaction, refusing to participate or engage, essentially becoming unresponsive.

John Gottman

5 Things Men Can Do To Strengthen Their Relationship

And, according to Gottman, 85% of stonewallers are male (women tend to do other things). 

We’re talking about emotional maturity this month, and what stonewalling essentially does is says, ‘I refuse to engage you on an emotional level.”

Last week we began our series looking at four markers of emotional maturity, and we talked about how people often use God language to escape having to be responsible for their actions. I intended to talk this month about spouses who tend to still act like children and don’t take responsibility, but what kept coming up in the comments, over and over again, was about emotions–how so many people are uncomfortable with expressing emotion, and thus have difficulty talking about any kind of conflict.

I kept hearing things like this comment:

In my marriage, I have had to carry the load of being responsible much of the time. Long story short, it has become his habit, if there’s something I want to discuss, something that needs to change or be worked on, to accuse me of “always wanting to be in control”. He uses this goes alongside of scruipture, which says, “the man is the head of the wife…”. Feels like another God card, since it ends the conversation.

This is indeed using the God card, but notice that if she merely wants to discuss an issue, he shuts her down by accusing her of trying to control him. Other women expressed something similar: “If I try to bring something up, he gets so angry and says that he won’t talk about it.”

So let’s dissect what’s happening here.

When two people get married, they’re pledging to live their lives together. They’re a team. They’re a partnership. They’re pledging to love each other, to care for each other, to have the other’s back. They’re not just getting married so that they can still do whatever they want but then also get sex when they want; they’re getting married so that they can be a unit.

And if you’re a unit, then the other person should matter to you. The other person’s emotions should matter to you. That’s part of what you promised.


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But when people grow up very uncomfortable with showing emotions, then they also tend to find conflict resolution difficult.

Talking about an issue may mean that they have to reveal things that make them feel vulnerable. It may mean they have to admit they’re not perfect–and they’ve been taught that showing weakness is one of the worst things you can do. They may feel inadequate because the other person isn’t having needs met.

All of those feelings are terribly uncomfortable, and they don’t want to deal with them because they don’t know how. So instead what they do is one of two things: They erupt in rage, or they stonewall and refuse to engage at all.

Either way, they shut everything down.

That’s wrong. That essentially tells their wife (and I’m going to start using husband-wife because Gottman says it’s almost always in that direction) that her emotions aren’t important. Her well-being isn’t important. All that’s important is that she gets back in line and express only the emotions he’s comfortable with.

When he does that, he’s saying, “I don’t really want to know the real you. I only want the parts I’m comfortable with.”

It cuts off all possibility of true intimacy. It’s immature, and it’s wrong.

Unfortunately, in Christian circles stonewalling has been portrayed as being honorable and masculine.

We have a weird view of masculinity in evangelical circles right now, as this video from Emerson Eggerichs’ sermon at Houston’s First Baptist Church last year shows. He’s describing how, in conflict, men will withdraw and essentially stonewall. (I’m starting this video at 58 seconds in; the two clips following that both have to do with stonewalling):

What Eggerichs is describing is a situation in which a wife wants to bring up an issue. But the husband’s response? He feels fearful, disrespected, and angry, and so he walks away to calm down.

What if you’re feeling “flooded” and physiologically you do have a hard time talking about it?

That’s okay. That’s what often triggers stonewalling–the heart starts beating faster, you feel panicky, you feel overwhelmed. If this is the response, then it is wise to say, “let’s stop right now.” 

But it shouldn’t end there. That shouldn’t mean that you never address it–and yet this is what Eggerichs is intimating in his sermon, because he never talks about how to actually fix an issue.

Instead, Eggerichs is portraying men as being honorable when they refuse to engage with their wives. But that’s not honorable. That’s emotionally immature. And if it continues on an ongoing basis, yes, it is abusive. If he refuses to engage with her emotionally, and shuts her down every time she brings anything up, it is emotionally manipulative and abusive.

It is not a mark of being a “real man” to have to walk away when your wife brings up an issue. The mark of being a real man is to be able to talk about your emotions and work towards intimacy.

 

Do You Have a Difficult Time Standing up to your Husband?

God wants us aiming for His will. That sometimes will mean that we need to confront our husbands when they’re doing something wrong.

Struggle with how to do that? Are boundaries a difficult concept for you? 9 Thoughts can help!

So what should you do about stonewalling? 2 big thoughts.

Just because someone says a conversation is over does not mean that it is over.

I hear this all the time–“he refuses to talk about it.” “He yells and walks out of the room.”

So you bring up the fact that you’re in debt and you need to figure out a budget. Or that he’s working too much and the kids are missing him. Or that you feel like he plays video games too much and you’re not connecting. And he refuses to talk about it.

If he needs to calm down and get his bearings, that’s fine. Please give him space for that. But he should get his bearings so that he can engage with you, not so that he doesn’t have to. 

You can say: “You may not want to talk about this now, but this is not going away. This is important. Our marriage is important. And if you can’t talk about this now, we will still have to talk about it later.”

And you can simply say, “Until we address this, our marriage will have to be on hold, because this matters. So why don’t we leave this until Tuesday night, but then we will revisit it.”

So perhaps you give him two or three days to calm down, but during those two or three days, you withdraw and give him space. He doesn’t get the benefit of being married to you and being emotionally engaged with you when he refuses to emotionally engage himself.

Once that time period is over, you bring things up again. When you eat; when you go to bed; when you get up in the morning. You can turn the TV off if he is watching TV and say calmly, ‘We are going to talk about this now.” You can turn the light back on when he switches it off at night and say, “No, we have an unfinished conversation.” You can do all this kindly but firmly, but you do not have to let something important go just because he won’t engage.

Now, what if doing this triggers his violence or rage? Then please call a domestic abuse hotline, because your marriage is not safe. Please get help.

What if doing this makes him storm out of the house or leave? Then let’s move on to the next point:

You do not have to act like everything is normal when it is not.

If you are simply trying to engage him on something that is important to talk about, and he refuses to engage, then this is not a healthy or normal marriage, and you do not have to act like it is. As I shared in my series that started off 2020, we are meant to be iron that sharpens iron for each other. Marriage is meant to grow us. But too often the opposite happens.

Your main role in this marriage is to help both of you be transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29). You aren’t meant to enable emotional immaturity; you’re meant to help him grow. This is really the theme of my book 9 Thoughts That Can Change a Marriage. We’re looking at marriage wrong. We think it’s about keeping the relationship together, when really we should be asking, “how do I grow and look like Christ?” When we do that, our marriages get much healthier.

That means that if he’s doing something which is hurting your relationship and which is holding back his own emotional growth, you can act accordingly. You do not have to pretend that your marriage is perfect.

  • You can stop having dinner on the table at a regular time and sitting down to a normal dinner. You can instead say, “we aren’t eating until we’ve talked about this.”
  • You can stop pretending to others that your marriage is perfect. You can tell some close friends or mentors that you are having issues, and invite them in to talk to both of you. If you have adult children, you can tell them that you are having issues.
  • You can stop any volunteering things you are doing together, or areas of ministry you share, until you get this sorted out, and tell your ministry leaders that there is trouble.
  • You can tell his family that you are experiencing difficulties (although if his difficulties relate to emotions, it’s likely that his family isn’t good at handling them either)
  • You can even move into a different bedroom, if things are bad enough.
  • You can insist on seeing a licensed counselor together (please see a licensed counselor, and not just a biblical counselor through your church!)

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If bringing these things up with people at church would result in you being told that you are controlling and in the wrong, rather than an effort to help resolve the conflict and help him listen, then it’s likely that your church is not a safe place for you. Too many churches call women controlling when they have legitimate issues and insist that they are addressed. If this is your church, it’s not a healthy one, and please know that there are healthier churches out there!

I’ve painted a bleak picture of stonewalling, but as John Gottman says, this is very destructive in a relationship.

Refusing to engage with your spouse’s emotions is a form of emotional immaturity, which can grow into abuse all too easily.

In the Christian world, women are often called “controlling” if we insist on talking about an issue, or else we’re called “disrespectful.” But it is not disrespectful if there is a big issue in your marriage and you want to deal with it. That is an attempt to build intimacy, not to destroy it.

I understand that it is very hard to be assertive and stand up for yourself when you’ve been told your whole life that to do so is selfish. But I’d encourage us to look at this through entirely different eyes. What is it that God ultimately wants? How does God want us to grow? What if marriage is the relationship that He wants to use to help us grow emotionally?

We’re to look like Jesus, and that means that we can’t keep enabling emotional immaturity. Sometimes people do need to grow up and do need to become comfortable resolving conflict and talking about emotions. That can’t happen if we let stonewalling be the last word.

When Your Husband Stonewalls: 2 Keys to Handling Stonewalling Behavior

Have you ever experienced stonewalling? How did it feel? How do you think it’s best dealt with? Let’s talk in the comments!

Posts in the Emotional Maturity Series:

And check out 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage–my book that covers emotional maturity. Plus there’s a FREE group study you can take with it!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

Related Posts

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

Related Posts

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57 Comments

  1. Anon

    Oh women can stonewall. Make no mistake. If you are in a sexless marriage and you try to bring it up. Look out. You will get stonewalled.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      There’s no doubt about that, which is why Gottman said it was 85% male, not 100% male. We also spent a long time this fall talking about women’s lack of libido, and what to do about it, so I’d invite people to go back and look at the libido series if you have questions about that. In this post, I’d like to address stonewalling in a non-sexual context, because I’m trying to address other areas of marriage, since we’ve talked only about sex almost all fall.

      Reply
  2. Jamie

    In my marriage I don’t think we’ve actually ever dealt with an issue completely. My husband won’t talk about the issue, like zero words come out. He doesn’t walk away or get angry, he simply won’t say anything or on the rare occasion he does say anything it turns into him bashing himself. I then feel terrible and end up apologizing for even bringing it up in the first place. I have been taking a new strategy in which I lay out everything that’s wrong tell him what I could be doing better or different then give him time to collect himself and answer usually a day or so. This has turned into him still not addressing the issue and acting as though everything is fine and still wanting his needs met. I honestly feel as though I’m going crazy! I don’t know what to do, he simply won’t engage in conversations that need to be had. I’ve talked to a close friend and she has no advice so I’m at a loss.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, that’s a very common stonewalling technique–bashing themselves so much, “i’m a terrible husband, I’m a terrible person, God must hate me,” etc. etc., so much so that you back down and try to make them feel better.
      It is a form of emotional manipulation as well.
      I can imagine how frustrating this must be! You say that he comes back in a day or two and still wants his needs met, but refuses to engage with you. I’m curious–what do you do then? Do you go on as normal? Or do you say, “no, this still isn’t resolved, and so I can’t engage in the way that you need me to until we talk about the issue?”

      Reply
  3. Ellynne

    This is exactly what I’d hoped you would address when you started this series! My husband is learning and growing in this area, but he is emotionally immature. He 100% meets his responsibilities, is an exceptional provider, reliable, stable, consistent, etc. But talking about his emotions or mine, or certain taboo topics, is off limits. He reverts to the emotional manipulation that Jamie mentioned, or explodes in anger. I have certainly had my part in it, but I’m learning how to address issues in a way that’s calm, reasonable, doesn’t assume his motives, etc. I do believe part of his emotional immaturity stems from having an emotionally manipulative mother and a passive, unemotional father.
    I love your advice on how to deal with it! Over the years I’ve learned to (usually) not respond in anger, but I have a hard time being assertive enough to bring up sensitive topics again after the explosion. I want to be able to do it in a calm, not manipulative (this sends him through the roof) way, and your advice is very helpful.
    And I 100% agree that this type of emotional immaturity is a huge obstacle to real intimacy. I wonder if you, Sheila, or any of your readers have any resources they would recommend to teach better communication or that would address this issue of emotional immaturity?

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Hi Ellynne! Glad you found it helpful. I think being assertive is really the key. I’m not sure it’s more communication habits that are needed, if he refuses to hear whatever it is. I think the key is learning to be assertive yourself. It’s learning that, “my needs matter. I’m not making too big a deal out of this. If our marriage is going to get better, this does need to be addressed, and I am not being selfish.”
      When one person is emotionally immature and refuses to engage, communication tools aren’t as likely to help as the other spouse learning to be assertive and to speak up, and that this isn’t being selfish. That’s a really hard thing to learn, but it sounds like you are! Sometimes you need coaching, too, and a licensed counselor can help with that. But I think the key is learning to be assertive in a kind but firm way. If your husband grew up with an emotionally manipulative mom and a passive dad, he’s just never learned to engage on an emotional level. If you’re assertive, then you’ll help him learn that, even if it’s hard. But I do think that’s the road that God wants for both of you–the road to growth.

      Reply
  4. Doug Hoyle

    I have used stonewalling in the past. I am sure that often it was immature on my part, but just as often it was simply conflict avoidance.
    I wonder how often a behavior is attributed to one motive when something else entirely is at play. You had two really good approaches to handling stonewalling, but I really think you missed the first and most important one, and that is how you approach your husband/wife with the issue you want to discuss. If it even starts to come across as an attack, most people, man or woman, will respond negatively. I know I will withdraw immediately if faced with that scenario. On the other hand, my wife is more likely to go into an offensive, and counter-attack me on something not even related.
    Other times that I might withdraw, is when I am faced with what feels like a no win scenario. By that, I don’t necessarily mean that I “need” to win. On the other hand, there are some things that are beyond my control, and having them brought up over and over is not going to change them.
    I would also suggest that, if all your spouse ever hears about are problems, then yeah, he will also shut things down. It got so bad at one point in our marriage that I would hang up on my wife if I was working out of town and she called to vent about something. The only time she called was when there was a problem, and she used me as an emotional punching bag. I’m not defending my response. It was immature. Then again, when you are spending all your time on the road to try to make a living for your family, if all you ever hear is what you are doing wrong, it makes it pretty hard to engage.
    So, Yeah, if your husband stonewalls, it should be addressed. The first thing I would address it is honestly examining if my approach was maybe making things worse.

    Reply
  5. Nathan

    > > bashing themselves so much, “I’m a terrible husband,
    > > I’m a terrible person, God must hate me,” etc. etc.,
    > > so much so that you back down and try to make them feel better.
    I have to admit that I do this on occasion. It’s not healthy (for either of us), and I need to work on it.

    Reply
  6. Andrea

    Sheila, you are doing God’s work, but how many women in these situations do you think can actually afford to take your advice, down to refusing to cook dinner or sleep in the same bedroom? I say “afford” on purpose because women in marriages like that are usually financially dependent on their husbands, all the more so if they have children with them. I’m glad you addressed the possibility fo violence – that was my first thought about a husband’s possible reaction to his wife putting her foot down – but the financial inequality is another big barrier to the potential success of solving this problem.
    Money truly is horrible, the amount of influence it exerts on our lives. Have you seen the studies that show how women who are financially dependent on their husbands are also more likely to have sex when they don’t want to and submit to degrading sex if their husbands want to re-enact porn in the bedroom? I can’t imagine they’re any better off when it comes to managing stonewalling. Conversely, since you have a heart for Kenya, have you seen the studies that show how empowering women financially, with microloans and such, makes their husbands respect them more and beat them less?

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Andrea, it certainly is a real issue. Economic instability does leave women open for abuse. And in those cases, a domestic abuse hotline or calling the authorities may be the best course of action.
      I do think, though, that a lot of people who are emotionally immature and stonewall DON’T abuse. I can think of many in my own social circle. Some of them are even puppy dogs! But they just won’t have real conversations.
      I also think that it’s important, even if people can’t take the advice, that they see what an emotionally healthy response is. I also think it’s important for Christians to start talking more about emotional health and less about roles in marriage. If we start recognizing what healthy looks like, then it’s easier to see what’s unhealthy, and it’s easier to see that we should deal with it.

      Reply
  7. April

    This is interesting. In my marriage, my husband doesn’t stonewall, but we don’t get anything solved. I bring up something and he will talk it to death (at least 1-2 hours of monologuing) giving all the reasons why the thing is happening, but it isn’t what I think and why he isn’t wrong. Then telling me why what I am experiencing isn’t really real and it’s my trauma history that makes me feel that way. It’s exhausting, and I end up emotionally drained and usually concede because I just want it to be over. And then I am hesitant to actually bring anything up because I know what I am walking into. I guess he could accuse me of stonewalling. I have learned that challenging him (no matter how graciously, gently or how good my timing is) does not and has not ever gone well.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m sorry, April. That’s so tough!
      One thing I talked about in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage is that often in conflict resolution we go around in circles because we debate the issues rather than addressing what it is that we need right now. When we talk about what the unmet emotional need is, it’s much easier to deal with the problem. I talked about it more in this post, but it could be that this concept is something you could talk to your spouse about, and the technique is something you could use (instead of who is right and how is wrong, ask, “what emotional need is going unmet for me, and how can we solve that?”)

      Reply
  8. April

    Andrea, you make excellent points. What you say about the financial inequality and the consequences is very true.

    Reply
  9. Pam

    I guess I am the stonewaller now. After 25 years of never having a productive conversation I refuse to engage in another back and forth argument where everything I experience, feel and say is “not true”. So what’s the point of a discussion. To me it’s a waste of time. Yet he wants to continue to have these arguments always exactly the same and now accuses me of abusing him by stonewalling. We have been to counseling 3 times for a year each. Nothing ever changed. Basically I refuse to engage as a self-protective action. Out of ideas at this point.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Pam, I’m so sorry. Can I ask a question, though? It sounds like your marriage is in serious trouble. If you can’t engage with him out of emotional protection, and he feels as if you hold yourself off from him, what are you going to do about it? Is it going to get better? Or are you resigned to an unhappy and distant marriage? It could be that you are, and that’s a legitimate choice. But it just seems like such a bleak way to live. Could you try asserting yourself more, and if he tells you that’s all your fault and that what you’re saying isn’t true, could you stand your ground? I’m just thinking that this sounds very bleak, and that breaking this dynamic may be the best thing to happen.
      If he just will not listen, and will not engage with your emotions, then what can you do to make your life bearable and to keep yourself emotionally healthy in such a bleak environment? Do you have a support system or other help?

      Reply
  10. Emmy

    I wonder if my husband interprets my response as stone walling when I have told I do not wish to talk about topic x any more? I don’t want to stone wall but I don’t like to be walked all over either.
    Topic x is not something essential for our relationship. It is more or less a political topic upon which we disagree. I can live with some disagreement but I hate it when he wants to know my opinion in order to work upon it and change it. It is so very disagreeable! He has the right to have his own ideas on topic x but I also want to keep mine. I have worked and studied hard to figure them out.
    One time, when he wished to talk about topic x with me, I presented him some of my observations on topic x in a way I thought was non-aggressive, balanced and informed. His reaction was rather snappy: “Now you really have to be careful what you say!” This made me quite angry and I told him I never ever want to discuss topic x with him any more.
    He said, fair enough, let us not talk about topic x any more.
    He does try to pull me into a discussion on topic x so now and then. It happens quite often, actually. When I remind him we agreed not to discuss topic x any more, he retreats…for a while, but after some time, he tries it again. And when I retreat the best way I can, he finds a video on YouTube, on topic x, and listens to them, very loud, and looks at me like he expects some kind of reaction from me. I won’t react. He is welcome to listen to any videos he likes, they are not sinful or evil, but I just don’t agree with the message and I don’t want to engage. I have seen so many times how it will end up.
    I don’t wish to be unkind, but I’m afraid my responses are seen as stone walling.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Hi Emmy! That’s a great question.
      What you’re describing isn’t stonewalling. Your spouse doesn’t have the right to get you to talk about anything under the sun. There may be some things you genuinely don’t enjoy talking about, aren’t interested in, or are triggering for you.
      What we do have the right to, in marriage, is that our spouse will care about our feelings. So if something is important to you (going to bed at the same time; feeling unloved because your spouse won’t talk to your mother, etc.) these things are legitimate to expect a spouse to engage about. Or if it’s something that’s endangering the family (bills not getting paid, etc.)
      But if it’s that your spouse wants to talk about something in order to change your mind when it isn’t really about emotional needs or the marriage, that is something different entirely. It’s okay to bow out of those conversations.

      Reply
  11. Doug Hoyle

    April, it is hard to respond to this without knowing more, but a few of the things I have gleaned is that this is an ongoing issue that has been talked about, but that you are still dis-satisfied with the resolution. I also find it interesting that he attributes it to your trauma history. Again, there is no mention of the particular issue, or the trauma you endured, but it is possible that he is at least partly right there. I know that there are some areas that I am particularly susceptible to, and that I do not see clearly, at least until I seriously start asking myself if I am reacting to what is happening right now, or if I am reacting to ghosts from the past. Rejection is one area that I have problems with discernment. I often don’t know that I am responding to the past, until it is pointed out.
    On the other hand, my wife was particularly susceptible to my anger because of an abusive childhood. While she told me once that she was never afraid of me, my anger was a trigger for her. In that case, my behavior needed to change, but at the same time, she was reacting to ghosts as much as she was to my outbursts.
    I guess the point is, if it is a behavior issue that he has the power to change, then he should be willing. On the other hand, don’t automatically dismiss his observation without giving it some consideration. We don’t always know where our blind spots are and how far they extend

    Reply
  12. Andrea

    This is another potential financial barrier, but going to counseling could really help a woman’s assertiveness. A good counselor will actually role-play it with you, using the lines your husband uses on you and encouraging you in how to respond. So imagine all the helpful examples of things you could say listed in the blog here and then actually practicing them in front of a person who role-plays your husband. The second best thing is doing it in front of the mirror. But you do need some practice before you can pull it off, and not just in assertiveness, but also in remaining calm as he tries to escalate things.

    Reply
  13. B

    The suggested actions DO feel controlling or parenting to me. I know I would be quite upset if they were done to me. Then again, I don’t refuse to have intentional conversations and I try to be open to constructive criticism. I’ll have to ponder over these suggestions and whether I feel I could use them, personally. I did just leave an abusive marriage earlier this year. Had I attempted to use most of these suggestions, I definitely would have been accused of control and manipulation.
    My ex was also a 2-hr monologuer and gaslighter–usually late at night, when my mind was already tired and costing us rest. Turns out he is a narcissist and can’t accept criticism, so he threw word salad around until I gave up or had been convinced the situation was handled.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, B, so much depends on the dynamics!
      If someone absolutely refuses to talk or engage emotionally (or about anything you think is important), then you may need to be assertive and speak up.
      But the problem, as you rightly pointed out, is that abusive spouses tend to also insist on having conversations whether or not the other wants it.
      The question we have to ask is: Is this an attempt to resolve a situation, build intimacy, and feel connected, or is this an attempt to bully my spouse and get them to do what I want?
      A 2 hour monologue where you are being gaslit is not merely someone assertively putting their needs forward; that’s an attempt to control and bully. But someone standing up to a bully and saying, “We aren’t going to pretend things are normal when they aren’t; and we are going to talk about this,” is not the same thing.
      My hope would be that anyone in either of these situations would be able to seek out licensed counseling, because I do think that’s what’s best in these situations. But I also want people to know that if you have legitimate needs and your spouse refuses to engage around them, you do not have to accept that, either. You don’t have to act like everything is normal and fine if it is not.

      Reply
  14. April

    Doug, you are right that I do have certain triggers. But it can be something like he overspends on the budget frequently (that we meet and plan together). He will tell me that it isn’t happening, and that I am just feeling insecure because of my trauma history – while we don’t have money for groceries. Or it can be that he insulted me jokingly – I might say “I know you were joking, but that hurt my feelings.” Then he goes on for two hours about how I have a terrible sense of humor and why do I always think poorly of him, and if I just wasn’t traumatized by a child, he would be able to joke with me however he wanted to and I would be fine. Like someone said above, it is 2 hour monologues, nothing gets solved. And that in and of itself can be a bit traumatizing after 18 years.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, April, that definitely isn’t healthy. When you are trying to bring up problem X, and he continually uses problem Y to say that X isn’t real, that’s stonewalling (and also gaslighting). And if he then accuses you of thinking poorly of him as a way to make you be quiet about problem X–that’s also a big problem.
      It’s okay to say: “We aren’t talking about whether or not I love you or think I highly of you. I do love you. I am married to you. But right now, we are talking about the budget. If you would like to talk at another time about how you feel unloved, I would be happy to do so and will gladly put it in my calendar right now. But we are going to put that conversation on hold so that we can talk about the important thing right now: that we are behind on the budget that we already agreed upon.”

      Reply
  15. April

    Shelia, that post is excellent. We do end up debating the issues. He gets frustrated with me because I am always trying to bring it back to the unmet need, or whatever it is that is needed right now – like the budget, or a parenting thing. But he seems unable to do that – he spends an hour plus telling me that perceptions and experiences aren’t real and whatever situation I am trying to address isn’t a thing (i.e. gaslighting). How do you work with someone who is unwilling to work with you?

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Can you try, “You are changing the subject again from the budget. I am willing to talk about that at another time, but right now we have to talk about the budget.”
      And if he just refuses, then can you go to a good friend, a mentor, a brother, his brother, a dad, a healthy minister, anyone like that? Someone that he will respect?
      I would allow him to change the subject say 3-4 times, and then say, “Okay, you obviously aren’t willing to talk about the issue right now, so we will shelve it until tomorrow at dinner, when we will talk about it again. If you are not able to engage in it tomorrow night, then I will have to start seeking some financial counsel to see what I can do to keep myself financially safe, if you will not do this as a team.” Or something like that. I know it’s really, really tough. I know what I’m saying sounds bizarre. But I’d ask a friend who is a strong, assertive person to coach you through this and help you talk through different scenarios so that you don’t allow him to deflect again.
      By the way to all commenters: I know for some reason you can’t reply to other people. We’re aware of the problem and we’re trying to fix it behind the scenes! But your comments still come through, they’re just not nested under the person you replied to!

      Reply
  16. April

    B, you describe my experiences to a T. My husband is a narcissist too.

    Reply
  17. Meredith

    April, you can’t. Your husband is a narcissist and has no interest in making your marriage work. Please make a plan to leave him, for the sake of your own physical and emotional health. Narcissist do not change, and they suck the life out of their victims. You deserve a better life.

    Reply
  18. B

    Discernment is huge.
    I think I still have much to unlearn from my past. I did pretend things were fine for a long time. I’ve heard many surprised responses to our divorce, but I’ve also had several people tell me they were so glad they could finally be honest about how they actually felt about him.
    Marriage counseling was refused, so I took myself. I think he knew it would lead to me saying enough, because he fought that, too. I’m glad I did individual counseling before “forcing” him into marriage counseling because I was already aware of what I deserved or not as basic human rights. Even licensed counselors can be schmoozed by narcissists.
    Toward the end, I had become more assertive about not having “talks” after midnight. There was one night I honestly feared he was going to push me out of the bed because I refused to leave my side.
    Coparenting with him is exhausting and nightmarish. He still word salads, projects, and accuses. And stonewalls.
    I’ve had some conversation with my pastoral team about how better to handle abusive marriages in our church. I love them, but I needed more help than they knew how to give.
    If God had not given me the tools and community to walk away from that dynamic, I’d be reading this blog from a different heart/mind position. I’m glad to be out, even if his verbal/mental/emotional abuses are still being thrown at me.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      B, can I just say that when I hear stories like yours, or stories from other women who have been in abusive marriages for decades, where they were systematically abused in almost every way possible–well, I’m just in awe at how strong you all are. To leave, to rebuild your life, to cling on to what is good and to keep trying to follow after Jesus even when the Bible has been used against you, to try to get your mental health strong for the sake of your kids, to decide that the rest of your life is yours to make of it what you will, and you won’t allow him to derail that–well, that is a LOT. And I am in awe.

      Reply
      • Laurie

        This article brought tears, all of them. It describes my efforts to communicate with my husband exactly. It always felt wrong the way he would be so dismissive and not make any effort or completely rage at me. This article has helped me to see that it’s actually abuse. Oi

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          I’m glad you found it helpful, Laurie! I’m sorry for what you’re going through. So sorry. If you can afford it, please see a licensed counselor (by yourself; not with your husband) to figure out how to handle this and what you should do.

          Reply
  19. Jane Eyre

    “Just because someone says a conversation is over does not mean that it is over.”
    This is interesting to me: shutting down counterproductive and emotionally harmful conversations is a necessary part of emotional health. It’s a boundary issue and one I wish I learned at a younger age.
    There was a time in our marriage when my husband said that we were not going to have that conversation – and he didn’t mean “not now.” He was right; I was bringing things up that had been resolved and shouldn’t have been doing it. The solution wasn’t for him to grit his teeth through the conversation; the solution is for me to stop letting those words fly out of my mouth.
    On a more extreme example, my family of origin uses “discussions” as a mode of emotional abuse: they “discuss” (often involving some gruesome lying, shouting down, talking over) until the other person has a breakdown and surrenders to stop the verbal abuse. There is one solution to that, and it is: we are not having this discussion.
    And it’s weird that I feel so strongly about this as a boundary issue, because I also see the flip side (refusing to have a calm and necessary discussion) as deeply passive aggressive and destructive.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, again, discernment is really what is needed here. Who is trying to build intimacy, get both of you on the same page, and discuss emotional needs? And who is trying to control and manipulate the other?
      Often women are called controlling for repeatedly bringing up important issues. Because they can’t let them go, they’re “controlling”. But some issues can’t be let go if the marriage and family are to be healthy. Some issues do need to be figured out–what do we do about the fact that we’re going into more and more debt every month? What do we do about the fact that you said you were quitting your job to start a business, but you’ve had no clients in six months and the bank account is dry? What do we do about the fact that you never talk to me unless you want sex, and I feel distant from you? What do we do about the fact that you yell at the kids frequently, and they’re not happy?
      These (and many others) are the sorts of things that have to be talked about, but frequently one spouse just shuts down. That’s when it’s okay to say, “No, we need to talk about this.”
      But refusing to have a conversation where the point of the conversation is to make the other feel belittled, controlled, manipulated, or small is quite different. I totally understand needing to cut off conversations that are counterproductive and hurtful. But sometimes you do need to keep having conversations until things get hashed out.

      Reply
  20. Michelle

    This is almost exactly what I was going to say, Jamie. My husband has an almost identical response. I want to see it from his side, I’m sure there are things I can do better, but that’s impossible to do when they won’t talk to you for hours because you’ve upset them by confrontation. I don’t have any advice or words of wisdom, just know that I’ll be praying for you today.

    Reply
  21. Wild Honey

    I second Sheila’s comment about a spouse self-bashing in response to you trying to bring up an issue as a form of emotional manipulation.
    The Gottman Institute (John and Julie Gottman’s website) has a “Marriage Minute” newsletter that I’ve found helpful. It sends out a little blurb a couple times a week with links to further reading, if the topic seems applicable. Sometimes it helps give me specific words to address a situation that I may have been struggling to articulate, as it sounds you may be running into this, too.

    Reply
  22. Jane Eyre

    Doug, regarding your comment on abuse and how it affects emotional conversations:
    The issue comes when someone uses past hurts as a trump card. “You were abused and therefore, you’re wrong” with no explanation is just degrading.
    Contrast even with: “Because of your history, you interpret X as being an attack. And you’re completely right to do that, because you ex-husband did X to attack you! Part of the reason he used X as a weapon is because it’s a stealth attack: people will talk about/do X for constructive and kind purposes. Normal people aren’t using X as a weapon, so it was harder for you to see and harder to express the problem to people. But I am not trying to use X as a weapon.”
    In the first, you’re saying that the person is categorically and irredeemably wrong because they were abused. Categorically: abuse renders wrong ALL of their perceptions on this issue. Irredeemably: there’s NO path forward except “shut up.”
    In the second, you’re acknowledging the underlying validity of their perceptions and mental processes, with the caveat that they are mistaken in this particular situation. But they aren’t irredeemably wrong: they can get to the point where they are able to sort out these issues.

    Reply
  23. B

    That means so much to me, Sheila. Thank you. Your blog, Dr. Les Carter’s Youtube, Leslie Vernick’s blog, Pastor RC Blakes’ Youtube, and my closest friends and family have been integral to my escape and rebuilding.
    I have challenged God through the process. I’ve yelled at Him. I’ve questioned Him. I’ve told Him that while I trust *Him*, I am not liking the process. I’ve begged Him to be Who His Word and the worship songs say He is. He continues to be steadfast in the midst of my personal storm.

    Reply
  24. Grace

    All of this is very counter what I’ve grown up with being taught, and what I’ve seen around me. And it makes me angry that it is this way in the church and in our cultures. I’ve wanted to intuitively do some of the things that are suggested like “putting your marriage on hold” but then the advice I get is that to do that is wrong! My husband used to be much more emotionally mature than he is now but after losing a job and going through a tough time where he was probably depressed but of course wouldn’t talk about it… Well… Life has been different. I’ve in the past almost walked away… But I’m so frustrated that I find my self dissolving into yelling whenever we need to discuss something, I guess out of anticipation that I’m not going to be listened to, and I need to get his attention good and proper from the start. It’s not a good tactic I know.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Grace, I’m sorry! That must be really frustrating. Has your husband gotten help for depression? I know that can be difficult in and of itself, to get someone to get the help they need.
      If you find yourself yelling before a conversation has even begun, it may be a good idea to practice first, maybe on a friend. Or write down what you want to say and read it. Or just wait for a week and pray that God will calm your heart so that your emotions don’t become the issue, rather than the issue that you want to discuss. You don’t want to derail something before it’s begun.
      Again, it’s okay if he doesn’t listen to bring the conversation back where it’s supposed to be, or to say, “OKay, if you don’t want to talk about this now, we’ll revisit this before dinner tomorrow. But I am not talking about anything else until we address this very important thing.”

      Reply
  25. Emmy

    Thanks, Sheila. I feel a little bit better about it now.

    Reply
  26. Grace

    Wow, thanks for replying Sheila. He did not get help, but I feel he has been in a much better place over the last year (despite the COVID shenanigans going on) as we have changed a few things in our life such as doing a big move and he got a new job last year and all that.
    I guess I will try just taking some time to have organised thoughts and be calm when I approach him about something. I suppose I can’t force him to listen and respond, although it would lovely if he did 🙂

    Reply
  27. Sharlee

    Hi Sheila,
    This is a great post and I am really feeling a bit heartbroken reading these comments.
    I wondered if you have watched The Chosen–the crowd funded series that documents Christ’s life? I haven’t finished Season 1 yet, but to say the show is a life-changing portrayal of Christ is an understatement. Once I finish the first season, I look forward to watching the bible experts discuss each episode.
    The writers take liberty with the backstories of the apostles and such, but I am looking forward to seeing how they came up with these stories and hear their commentaries on it.
    The reason I’m suggesting it to you is because the way women are portrayed in this series. It is an incredible portrayal in the best way. I think you’d appreciate it and it might possibly even add some further insights into what is means to be a biblical woman. They are not submissive in the way the mainstream culture would suggest–in fact-they are loyal to their God first and foremost which is something you share here often.
    If you haven’t seen it, I cannot recommend it enough.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I”ve heard others recommend it! I’ll have to take a look. Thank you.
      I think one of the worst things that the evangelical church has done is to put husbands as mediators between wives and Jesus, and taken away women’s responsibilities and blessings of serving God wholeheartedly. It actually is quite sad.

      Reply
  28. Jamie

    Well I’ve tried continuing the conversation which then loops back to him not answering. So I move on. I’ve continued on as normal just to make life easier with him more times then I’d like to admit. We’ve been married nine and a half years with four children so issues usually get put on hold when our small children need attention, but they usually don’t get revisited after since it’s like talking to a wall anyway. It’s just frustrating since smaller issues I can let go and forgive but we have a few “big” issues we need to work on but never do and they keep resurfacing.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m sorry, Jamie. That’s really hard. What I often tell people in difficult situations is work on the friendship first. Make sure that you’re able to just enjoy being together and laugh a bit. Bring the tension level down. (and you can try my emotional reconnection email course if that helps!). But then you do have to bring things up. And saying, “On Saturday I want to spend the evening after the kids go to bed talking about some things. This is important. I need you to do this with me. If you can’t, that shows me that you’re not invested in this marriage, and that’s very, very serious. I know you love me and you are invested, so we need to talk about this.” If that honestly doesn’t work, and he still is a wall, then I’d just say keep on it. You can be gentle but firm at the same time. If it’s important, it’s important.

      Reply
  29. Marlene

    I love this “emotional” series. Emotional maturity is what I am working through in professional counseling right now. As I have looked at and worked through hard, immature, emotional train wreck and rollercoaster issues in my life, I think that part of the problem is the Church’s view on emotions. My grandpa was a paster of a church. As a result of putting the church before my mom, my mom grew up with an absent father and mother. No one taught her how to deal with emotions, and therefore no one taught me growing up how to deal with emotions. On top of that, the church (in general) teaches emotions are “bad”—almost equating them with sin itself. I have observed myself, how emotions like anger, jealousy, fear, attraction (to the opposite sex), confusion, etc., are just supposed to be shoved aside, and you are supposed to do the right thing, regardless of how you feel. No working through your feelings, because feelings are equated with sin somehow, and hippies, and new age type cults. The church, I think, threw out all emotions without considering the real consequences of it. I think what I am seeing, is that the church, or husbands and wives, or christians; cannot separate emotion from the possible action that comes from it. And you can choose what to do after feeling that emotion. So, I can observe that a man may feel that fear when a wife wants to talk hard things. He needs to process why he feels that fear. What is he really scared of? If he chooses to stonewall, that is simply a way to deal with the problem. Probably taught to him by his father or mother. Not a healthy choice. But who has taught that man what to do with fear? Because, as i have observed, the church throws down judgement on his fear, and uses the Bible even, with “perfect love casts out fear,” and “fear not therefore”, etc. The church has forgotten that emotion is a gauge, and not a sin. I am not sinning simply because I feel attracted to a handsome man. I am simply feeling attraction. What do I choose to do next? That depends on your emotional training. And that brings me back to my beginning. I never received ANY emotional training or good common sense teaching on emotions. The church and my mom simply taught me to ignore my emotions, and even to feel them was sinful in some way. This is needed so much.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Very, very true, Marlene! Thank you. Yes, the church has taught that many emotions are sinful. Like you said, the man stonewalling has never been taught what to do with his fear and insecurity. It scares him, overwhelms him, and so he stonewalls. But it isn’t okay. We need to get more comfortable talking about emotions, and I hope to turn to that a bit next week!

      Reply
    • Lynnica

      Marlene, I feel very much the same way. I don’t remember explicitly being taught that emotions were sinful, but I feel like that was the attitude displayed toward them. Especially with the biblical language of “perfect love casts out fear” etc. I, too, don’t feel like I was taught how to deal with my emotions. That’s been brought into sharp focus for me by getting married in April, and suddenly moving out of the environment I’d lived in for 30 years. Thank God for such a patient husband! He’s put up with a lot.
      That kind of touches on something else I’d like to mention. I really feel a lot of times that I am less competent than I should be which leads to thoughts of “I’m a horrible person, can’t do anything right, hubby just puts up with so much from me, he’s so much better/I’m so much worse, etc.” I try not to say such things, because I know how manipulative and whiny it sounds (is), (and also know I focus on “perfection” more than I should), but that doesn’t stop me from feeling this way. So what do I do with those feelings?

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        That’s an excellent question, Lynnica! Let me ponder that and maybe write on it.

        Reply
  30. D

    Hi,
    Just wondering whether you have approached Eggerichs before holding him up as a bad example. It’s easy to misquote or misrepresent someone.
    I don’t know him nor do I defend him necessarily, but when Christians attack each other publicly, it seems most Biblical to have done so privately first.
    Hope so!
    (And I’m basically on your side anyway, just feel uneasy about the attacking approach)

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, we have approached him, and Rebecca detailed this in a podcast.
      However, I want it noted that it was not necessary for us to do so. Eggerichs did not say anything to me personally or about me personally, and I am not commenting about him personally. This sermon was done in public, and thus it needs to be corrected in public. His book is in the public sphere, and it needs to be called out in the public sphere. Just as Paul mentioned false teachers by name, so we must do so in public as well so that others are alerted that this stuff is dangerous.
      I also published the letter that I sent Focus on the Family. I think it’s vitally important that we talk about this in the public sphere, and that’s also what we hope our book The Great Sex Rescue will do as well when it comes out in March!

      Reply
  31. KE

    Yes, my husband and I alternatively “stonewall” and “nag” one another on different issues. I think it is really important how the issue is approached. Of course I stop the conversation when my husband starts using put-downs, even if his concerns are legitimate. Or I stop the conversation because I still don’t have a solution to the problem he is raising and he just wants to rant unless I say exactly what he wants to hear. Nagging is unhelpful and treats the partner as a child. Both parties have to agree to believe the best about one another and discuss issues without put-downs or accusatory language. Only then can the legitimate issues that both parties have be addressed. So, the nagger need a to be aware of language and tone of voice, while the stonewaller needs to breath, accept they are loved by God, and focus on the uncomfortable issue at hand. Unfortunately, only rarely are my husband and I emotionally competent to have such conversations.

    Reply
  32. Lori

    This is what I was advised to do and it works sometimes. First understand that a toxic person or narcissist won’t care how you feel so you can’t seek a positive response from them. Most of what they say is negative or antagonistic. You can however put the ball back in their court by making them responsible for their own behavior. For example you can state how you feel as an expression of your feelings (again, don’t expect an empathetic response. That’s not your goal – putting the ball back in their court is). Let’s say they haven’t talked to you in 3 days. You can say “I noticed you haven’t spoken to me in 3 days. I find that very damaging to our relationship. Are you ready to change your behavior? The ball is now in their court. They can say “yes” and you can respond “great.” They can respond “no” and you can go on your way knowing the ball is in their court. You can also say “I find it rude when you won’t look at me when I speak to you and it’s not helpful to our relationship that you won’t participate in any household chores. Are you ready to stop doing that? Wait to hear their answer. Maybe they will say “yes, I’ll stop.” Perhaps they’ll say “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” If so, simply repeat your observation “I find it rude when……” Perhaps they will say “no, I won’t stop.” In the end the ball is in their court and they are responsible for their own behavior. You’re responsible for not taking ownership of their issues and problems. You’re responsible for not taking ownership of their toxic “ball.” Toss it back and go on your way – and have a happy day without another thought to their shenanigans. This also works with toxic people who make snide remarks. Simply say “your comment was hurtful to me. Are you ready to apologize for saying that to me?” Again, if they say “yes, I’m sorry” that’s great. If they give you the silent treatment or say no then move on. The ball in their court. You’ve called attention to their behavior and now it’s up to them to do something about it.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Great advice, Lori! Appreciate that, and it’s such an important part of boundaries–putting the ball back in the right person’s court who has to change things.

      Reply
  33. Anonymous for this one

    I think my husband is covertly stonewalling me.
    It goes like this: we need to discuss something important and come to a conclusion. He migit discuss, speak nicely, not argue, but the conversation ends with no conclusion. If I ask point-blank, he might start his discussion, piece again, then end with no answer. If I press, I get an, “I don’t know.”
    I’ve been patient, prayerful, and understanding. Sometimes we don’t know. Sometimes we need time to mull it over, think it through, but after so much time, I’m beginning to think he’s using it to stone wall.
    I don’t think he is trying to control me as much as he wants to preserve himself. He doesn’t want to say no or say anything negatively conclusive and be seen as the “bad guy.”
    Unfortunately, it’s kept us in limbo for years, and is unfair too because he expects me to come to conclusions but won’t return the favor.
    So, keep in mind that stonewalling isn’t necessarily stone-cold silence and a bad attitude. It can come across as a good discussion but no conclusions, consistent lack of answers, commitment, direction, or support.
    I’m glad I recognized this. Now, I have amended praying to do because I am taking his years of “benevolent stonewalling” on the issue as he washes his hands of it and the decision is entirely in my hands.

    Reply
  34. Name *Anon

    I wonder how sexual intimacy fits into this? Is that part of normal marriage that I would reasonably be able to step away from future g stonewalli gang behavior? After many (5+) days of being stonewalled it’s very hard for me to be sexually intimate with my husband but then things get worse if intimacy doesn’t occur. I really struggle with sexual intimacy when i am being shut out of every other part of his life.

    Reply

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