Stonewalling vs. Empathy

Epic Love
Setting:  The Six Elements That Determine the Tone of Your Love Story  
Element #4:  Stonewalling vs. Empathy

When defensiveness fails to protect from recurrent confrontations of contempt and criticism, stonewalling is the next layer of self-protection that finds its way into a marriage relationship.  Stonewalling is, in short, emotional disengagement.  As one man recently told me, “When she gets upset like that, I just push in the clutch and ease on out.”  When someone is stonewalling, they will typically stop responding to their spouse in any meaningful way.  They may offer short, one word responses or they may simply remain silent.  However, stonewalling is not defined by the lack of any verbal reaction, but by the emotional disengagement.  Because one spouse has emotionally removed themselves from the interaction, their posture, tone of voice and facial expressions remain flat.  They wear a “thousand mile stare”; though their body is present, their heart and mind have left the building. 

Men are more likely to stonewall and by the time that a guy is stonewalling on a regular basis, a relationship is in trouble.  Men who stonewall are likely to do so because they feel themselves being flooded by emotion and stress.  They feel helpless to alter the course of an interaction and on some level they have begun to lose hope.  Unable to cope with their negative feelings or meaningfully confront the situation, they give up, flip an internal switch and emotionally disengage.

Budweiser aired a very funny commercial illustrating stonewalling several years ago.  The ad opens with the picture of an infuriated football coach yelling directly into the ear of a referee standing on the sideline.  As the referee maintains a level gaze, seemingly unaffected by the coach’s rage, the game’s commentators marvel, “Coach Ferguson is beating the ref like a rented mule and the ref’s just tuning him out.”  They muse, “Boy, where do you train to take a beating like that” as the ad transitions to a scene in the referee’s home where we find his enraged wife yelling at him as he stares blankly at the television across the room.  “And you didn’t take out the trash yesterday like you said you would!  And you haven’t asked me out on a date in years!  And it wouldn’t hurt if once in a while you told me that you loved me!  And to think that I could have married Donald Hoffman!”

Sally’s anger flashed so quickly that it startled even me.  “Don’t try to act like you don’t know what’s going on Ed!  I saw you look at that woman in the lobby of that restaurant!  I’m not crazy Ed!  You’re not going to play me for the fool again!”  Twice Ed opened his mouth as if to speak and each time Sally cut him off, voicing her hurt and anger with increasing intensity.  I watched as Ed gave up and then “left the building”.  He stopped trying to speak.  His eyes shifted slightly to the side of Sally’s head – far enough to the side so that he did not have to see or absorb the full intensity of her anger, but not so far as to make his disengagement obvious.  I allowed Sally to continue for another minute, noting that her anger was increasing as Ed disengaged.  “Sally.  What is it like for you right now as you’re talking to Ed?”  I queried.  “I’m just wasting my breath!  I don’t think he’s even listening to me!”  She was right. 
In relationships, stonewalling is the emotional equivalent to cutting off someone’s oxygen.  The emotional detachment inherent to stonewalling is a form of abandonment and the effect that it has on a spouse is dramatic.  The initial feelings of terror – which are usually below the water line of awareness - are typically followed by secondary feelings of anger and, then, aggressive efforts to get some emotional reaction - any emotional reaction - even a negative one.  And when these efforts fail, the internal response for your spouse is predictable.  He doesn't care.  He doesn't love me.  He's left me. 

Where stonewalling marks disengagement, empathy marks engagement.  Empathy is indicative of care and connection.  Genesis 2 records for us the power of the union between a husband and a wife.  Adam refers to Eve as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”  The passage goes on to clarify that for the sake of the marriage, “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”  This union is more than sexual in nature.  Contemporary research highlights the substantial change that occurs to the structure of the mind when you establish an emotionally intimate and secure bond with your spouse.  Mirror neurons allow you to feel what your spouse feels, think like your spouse thinks and anticipate what your spouse might do next.  Internal, mental maps are dedicated to tracking the emotional, cognitive and even physical whereabouts of your spouse. Empathy - any emotional expression that shows your spouse that you are feeling what they feel - demonstrates connection.  While empathy may not necessarily ease your spouse's negative feelings, it lets them know that they are not alone in them. 

My wife’s eyes begin to fill with tears and, even before I understand what is happening, my own eyes begin to water.  The reality that her emotional experience has become my own is unpleasant; I don't like to feel pain and I don't like to see her in pain.  I want to stop it - to fix it or make it go away - but I know that what she needs is to know that I am feeling it with her.  My empathy – my emotional response to her – tells her that I have not abandoned her, I am with her.  Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”

- Jeff Pipe

 If you want to learn more about this topic or how you can make your marriage into an Epic Love, consider participating in an Epic Love retreat.

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