Every time Faye tried to talk with her husband Ed about problems in the marriage, he refused to talk about the issues. He either changed the subject or said “Not now, Faye.”
If cornered, Ed would stare at Faye with an unchanging facial expression while she talked, and then he’d walk away without saying anything. He refused to cooperate with anything she suggested to improve their communication.
Ed’s attempts to obstruct Faye’s efforts and his determination to hinder or prevent discussions he didn’t want to participate in are examples of behavior called “stonewalling.” Someone who stonewalls uses delaying tactics to slow down or obstruct another person’s efforts and plans.
Faye was continually frustrated by Ed’s stonewalling every time she attempted to address the marriage difficulties. As she repeatedly hit the wall of his resistance, she became more critical of Ed both in private and in public.
She told him he was selfish, egotistical, and uncooperative. After awhile, she found it hard to remember his good points and focused more and more on his negative traits. The more blocked she felt in her efforts to get him to get involved in trying to improve the marriage, the more criticism she hurled his way.
As a result, the marriage became unrewarding and unsatisfying for both Faye and Ed, and they lost their feeling of connection. The relationship continued to spiral downwards, fueled by negativity and resentment. Faye eventually moved out and is currently filing for divorce.
Author Malcolm Gladwell writes in his best-selling book Blink about psychologist John Gottman’s research on marriage relationships. Gladwell quotes Gottman as saying, “The big gender difference with negative emotions is that women are more critical, and men are more likely to stonewall. We find that women start talking about a problem, the men get irritated and turn away, and the women get more critical, and it becomes a circle.”
So it’s important to understand the circle of stonewalling and criticism and what keeps the negativity circulating in the relationship. It’s natural to experience frustration when every effort to do something helpful is blocked, but the natural reaction to become more critical just makes the situation worse.
The other spouse is already resistant and uncooperative, and heaping an outpouring of criticism on his head won’t help. He will probably just dig his heels in deeper and refuse with even greater energy any attempts to make him do what he doesn’t want to do.
Wives often don’t realize the damage that an over-abundance of criticism can do to a relationship. They see themselves as trying to prod the husband for his own good and the health of the marriage–worthy goals, but ones that won’t be accomplished by being critical. Criticism makes a spouse feel unappreciated, discouraged, and negative toward the marriage.
Husbands, on the other hand, often don’t realize the damage they are doing to the marriage by stonewalling a wife’s attempts to improve the relationship. Hitting resistance over and over is discouraging and frustrating. It fosters resentment, anger, and bitterness, three feelings which can be toxic to a relationship.
Stonewalling tactics are designed to make the other person back off and quit making their request. However, the wife may decide to not only back off from suggesting marriage improvements, she may decide to back off from the marriage emotionally. This makes it much more likely that she will start feeling disconnected and detached from her spouse and the marriage.
Here are seven recommendations to help you:
1. If your spouse always stonewalls your attempts to get him to open up, give him a handwritten letter outlining your concerns and fears that you’ll eventually give up on the marriage if this continues. State that you value the marriage and want it to be top quality and satisfying for both of you, but that you need his input and help.
2. Resist the natural reaction to criticize in return. A quote by Elizabeth Harrison reminds us that “Those who are lifting the world upward and onward are those who encourage more than criticize.”
Criticism dampens spirits and discourages future efforts. Notice how your spirit tends to shrivel when you are criticized and to blossom when you are offered encouragement or praise. We look forward to spending time with people who are appreciative of our efforts, and we tend to avoid people who are critical of us.
3. Pull back on criticism and instead look for your spouse’s positive traits and actions. Show appreciation for what he is doing that’s good and helpful. Pay attention and watch for behavior that you can honestly and wholeheartedly praise, no matter how minor it appears.
When problems develop in a marriage, often the fun and laughter quickly disappear, and with them goes the satisfying feeling of connection. Work on restoring a sense of fun and appreciation of each other and don’t dwell on the problem areas right now. There’s more than one way to accomplish a goal, and in some situations the indirect way leads to greater success than the direct approach.
4. Once the emotional climate in your relationship has improved and you have built up your goodwill account in the relationship bank, then you’re in a better position to gently and respectfully ask him for his help in looking at ways to help you both keep that loving feeling more of the time.
5. If all else fails, you can ask him if he’ll do you the favor of going to counseling with you so he can share what he has observed about your behavior. That way, the therapist will know better how to help you become less critical.
Don’t mention his stonewalling behavior or the fact that he needs to change, also. Keep the focus on yourself and how you want to change. This tactic might enable you to get him inside the counseling office where the possibility increases that he could become involved in the counseling process indirectly.
6. If you are a spouse who uses stonewalling tactics and you’ve recognized yourself in this article, it’s time to look closely at how this behavior is endangering your marriage.
It’s also time to take a close look at your relationship goals for the present and future. Do you want a loving marriage that is satisfying to you and your spouse for years to come? And is your behavior helping you to accomplish your goals?
7. If you decide you want to change your behavior, you’ll make faster progress with the help of a marriage counselor. The counselor will be in a better position to assist your wife in becoming less critical, too.
Spouses often seem to “hear” each other better in a counselor’s office, and it helps to have objective feedback from a neutral third party. After all, why struggle on your own if a trained professional can use his or her experience to guide you through the constructive changes you need to make? It just makes good sense to use all of your available resources, especially when something as important as your marriage is involved.