Stone walls can be useful: They keep people away and protect those inside. When men construct them in marriage, however, they only cause anger, isolation and conflict. John Gottman, perhaps the most respected marital researcher in the world, underlines the importance of tearing down the walls: "A marriage succeeds to the extent that the husband can accept influence from his wife. If a woman says, 'Do you have to work Thursday night? My mother is coming that weekend, and I need your help getting ready,' and her husband replies, 'My plans are set, and I'm not changing them'. This guy is in a shaky marriage. A husband's ability to be influenced by his wife (rather than vice-versa) is crucial because research shows women are already well practiced at accepting influence from men, and a true partnership only occurs when a husband can do so as well." Gottman has found that stonewalling is one of the most detrimental factors in a marriage.
Here's the typical cycle: Women criticize men, and men become defensive and emotionally withdraw from a criticism or conflict. Stonewalling is easy to recognize. Men cross their arms, roll their eyes, and adopt a fixed "stone-face", sometimes turning away and speaking very little, if at all. Women, of course, react poorly to stonewalling, becoming angry, hurt, and frustrated, which likely causes them to criticize even more. Researchers have determined that stonewalling puts tremendous physiological stress on the closed-down man's heart and autonomic nervous system, and produces measurable negative stress reactions for his mate as well. The reason: Men stuff their emotions without physically withdrawing from the conflict, while women tune-in to the man's emotions. Any way you look at stonewalling, both husband and wife suffer.
The key to eliminate stonewalling is to recognize what is going on underneath the surface. Simply put, stonewalling comes about when a woman criticizes and her man hears that he is somehow wrong, "bad", or inadequate. Women's criticism affects men far more than women usually know. Men love to feel like they are doing great things, and pleasing their women. When they hear that they are failures (once again), you can expect men to withdraw and become defensive.
What can we do to eliminate or reduce stonewalling? First, women must soften and tone down their criticism, reducing their contempt or blame. Women need to understand that their criticism sabotages and shames men and is counter-productive; men won't change if they feel criticized and belittled. They will, however, respond well to loving, personal requests for new actions. Men are much more likely to open up if they feel accepted and respected.
Second, men must recognize their own stonewalling behaviors and know that stonewalling is damaging to them and to the women they love. Then, very simply, they have to begin to talk (not yell). It's also helpful to admit one's defensiveness. It's even more helpful to listen, really listen with all your heart to one's wife, because it's for your own good. My message to men is: Open up the "stonewalls". Let your wife in, and yourself out!
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