After reading my article, “Disarming the Four Horsemen that Threaten Marriage,” a reader who requested anonymity writes to me:
“Great column…maybe in the future you can focus on stonewalling…and what causes it. I remember my now ex-wife clamping her arms together and (figuratively) stamping her foot and ending the discussion with “Well, that’s the way I feel about it.” The conversation was over when I thought it was just starting.
“In retrospect, I was much more verbally agile than she. I have what I think is a typical male style of communication that is direct, competitive and combative, challenging my ‘opponent.’ It’s like a sport, a game.
“Back then… I saw this as constructive, a way to examine issues and come to a conclusion. What I see now is that this creates a barrier when I am communicating in a loving relationship with a woman, particularly a woman who has a — very common! — communication style that is indirect, dances around the issues, searches for consensus and tries to avoid a combative debate.
“I see this in a nonprofit board I’m on. The women want to natter on and will not state their feelings directly. The men are blunt and don’t get their feelings hurt when they are opposed, they just want to negotiate, get a decision and move on. The women feel abused and say ‘You’re not hearing us.’ Well, we did hear you and so let’s debate, settle and move on… but women tend not to work that way… There is room for motion on both sides. Women can be more direct and not feel hurt when they are opposed (it’s not personal) and men can recognize women’s need to discuss, discuss, discuss and seek consensus without confrontation.
“What do you think?”
How difficult this must have been for you, especially in your marriage. Although you seem to think most people who stonewall are women, this is not true.
Men are more likely to stonewall than women. Marriage researcher and psychologist John Gottman, PhD, found that eighty-five percent of those who stonewall are men. He recognizes that male stonewalling is very upsetting to women, increasing their physiological arousal (shown by increased heart rates, etc.) and intensifying their pursuit of the issue.
How Male and Female Brains Differ
It makes sense that men are more likely than women to stonewall because of what brain science reveals. In general, women’s brains are more developed in the area of feelings, verbal, and interpersonal relating skills. Men’s brains are more developed in the area of problem-solving and logical processes.
So it’s understandable that a man will feel overwhelmed or inadequate to cope with the expression of feelings he has difficulty processing. He may sense that a problem that he can’t solve has been thrust at him. He shuts down or withdraws in order to protect himself from experiencing what may feel like unbearable discomfort or incompetence.
Yes, some women do have difficulty owning and dealing with feelings. And some men are verbal and comfortable with dealing constructively with their own feelings and with hearing others express theirs.
How can you encourage a partner who stonewalls often to communicate more directly?
Tips for Relating to Stonewallers
Actually the above commenter wrote earlier that if he and his ex-wife had held a weekly meeting when they were still together — and used the simple agenda, guidelines, and positive communication skills described in Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted — “we’d probably still be married.”
Marriage meetings are gentle conversations that use positive communication techniques. Self-talk and I-statements are a couple of these, to use during meetings and at other times.
Self-talk can move you from feeling hurt and from telling yourself, “He doesn’t love me” when you’re being stonewalled, to recognizing that he or she is escaping from feeling overwhelmed or incompetent. Instead of taking it personally, you can tell yourself, “He needs a break to regroup.”
By using I-statements, you can help your partner be open to hearing you. Try saying in advance of a conversation you sense could be difficult to hear, “I just want to say how I’m feeling. I want you to hear me without trying to fix anything.” You can add, “I’d like it if after I express myself, you’ll say something like, ‘I hear you,’ ‘I understand,’ or just nod to communicate that.”
By stating what you’d like in advance, you remove the perceived threat from the picture and thereby make it easier for your partner to stick around.
When you use these and other positive communication skills, your partner is likely to become more comfortable, direct, and responsive.
Man with crossed arms photo available from Shutterstock