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.
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?
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!)
You may also enjoy:
- 10 Things to Ask a Biblical Counselor to Make Sure They’re Safe
- Could You Be Sinning Against Your Husband in These 98 Ways? (a handout given out in biblical counseling)
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.
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:
- Four Markers of Emotional Maturity
- Do We Use God Language to Avoid Maturity?
- 2 Keys to Handling Stonewalling Behavior
- Accepting Responsibility for What You Can Change (November 16)
- Dealing with Emotional Immaturity in Your Spouse (November 23)
- When Christian Resources Perpetuate Your Spouse’s Immaturity (November 30)
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
Founder of Bare Marriage
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