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Francine and Byron Pirola: Stonewalling is a silent killer in marriage

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Stonewalling – aka ‘the silent treatment’ – is common in many marriages. Never helpful and poorly understood, we ignore it at our risk.  

Stonewalling is the practice of withdrawing from an interaction, shutting down and closing ourselves off from the other. We may be physically still present, but we become un-responsive, emotionally withdrawn, and non-communicative. 

For our spouse, it is profoundly frustrating as it is like a wall between us, and it feels impossible to connect meaningfully. Sometimes called ‘the silent treatment’, stonewalling is another of the seven deadly habits. 

Why we stonewall…  

In marriage, statistically about 85% of the time the stonewaller is the husband. But it’s usually not done with the intention to hurt his wife or score points against her.  

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Studies show that stonewalling husbands are desperately trying to de-escalate the situation. They report thinking things like: don’t say anything, it’ll only make it worse; just stay quiet, it’ll blow over… etc. 

When the discussion gets heated and we become emotionally overwhelmed (i.e. ‘flooded’), our capacity to express ourselves and listen to the other declines. It can feel fruitless, even dangerous, to keep going.  

Stonewalling is not just a self-protective strategy, it’s also an attempt to shield our spouse from ourselves. If we’re at risk of losing self-control, stonewalling is indeed better than doing or saying something that might harm the other.  

…And why it doesn’t work 

Unfortunately, a stonewalling husband usually triggers his wife’s fear of abandonment. Instead of calming her, stonewalling is fuel to her anxiety, and she typically becomes more critical and more urgent in her pursuit of connection. 

When stonewalling is habitual, it’s infuriating to the other who feels that all the work of maintaining the relationship is falling to them. If the pattern doesn’t change, they will eventually conclude that nothing works – no matter how loudly or persistently they pursue their spouse. 

That’s not a good place to be for either spouse, especially if the frustration manifests in abuse and aggression. We usually associate abuse with men, but when we include verbal aggression and emotional manipulation in the definition, female abuse is surprisingly common. 

So, what to do instead? 

When a discussion gets unproductive and there are signs of ‘flooding’, a reliable strategy is to take a Time Out. Although Time Out may be misinterpreted as stonewalling, if both spouses agree to some ground rules, it can be very effective in re-establishing healthy connection.  

  1. The first rule is to establish the ground rules when you are calm and not in a state of conflict – get on the same page before a situation arises. 
  2. The second rule is that the time is capped. A Time Out should never be used as an excuse to avoid the discussion permanently. While men are more easily flooded than women, they also recover physiological equilibrium more quickly. Be clear about how much time you need to recover your composure and get clarity on your needs. 
  3. The third rule is to use your Time Out productively. Don’t fume and rehearse your response, and don’t fall into a funk berating yourself for what you said or did. Your spouse needs you come back stronger, calmer, more loving. Use the Time Out to self-calm with deep-breathing and lift your spouse and your marriage up in prayer. 
  4. The fourth rule is to attend to your physical needs before you reconnect. If you are over-tired, hungry, in physical pain, lacking privacy or otherwise uncomfortable, you’re more vulnerable to overwhelm in a difficult conversation. Give yourselves the best shot and do what you can to address any physical discomfort before you reconnect.   

Finally, when you do resume your conversation, frame it in prayer. An awareness that the Lord is present and listening helps us both to bring our best to our marriage. 

Francine & Byron Pirola are the co-founders of SmartLoving. For more, visit www.smartloving.org  

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