ByÂ Esther Mann, LCSW
I married my husband, Lev, after knowing him for six months. We dated for about three months, and our engagement was also about three months long. During that time, everything seemed great and I felt truly blessed.
A little necessary background about my family. I have a large, boisterous, loving family. We would do anything for anyone. I feel close to my five siblings and to my parents. When we disagree over something, we can at times wind up yelling at one another, which will lead to some back-and-forth arguing, but eventually one of us will apologize and we’ll literally hug it out. We deal with the disagreement in the moment and move on–no hard feelings.
I’ve been married for eight months now, and I soon noticed that if Lev and I had a disagreement, he would turn silent. If he felt he was wronged, rather than argue with me or even yell at me, he would shut down, walk away, and totally stop talking to me. This was so shocking to me, as it’s not how my family handles disagreements. So if he felt I was to blame, I had no problem apologizing and sweet-talking him out of his bad mood, encouraging him to move on. It took a little work, which seemed kind of odd to me, but I don’t like to be in a fight and I was always quick to resolve differences.
Now here’s the crazy part. When Lev does or says something that I believe is wrong, and I get angry with him, he will have the same reaction; he will remain silent until I go over to him and apologize–even though I know that I did nothing wrong. At first I would think long and hard, wondering if maybe I did say something wrong. But after this happened a few times and I carefully reviewed in my mind exactly what happened, I would be certain that it was all on Lev. And yet he still wouldn’t take the initiative to apologize and move forward.
I’m so uncomfortable being in a fight that I would always approach him and try to get back on track, often apologizing for things that I knew I didn’t do. Recently, I decided I would use all of my willpower to wait it out and see how long it would take Lev to come to me to work things out. To my astonishment, he went days without talking to me–even though he was at fault. And it seemed to me that he could easily go weeks, and maybe even months, ignoring me, if I didn’t approach him.
I’ve come to the realization that if I don’t want to be living with a husband who can ignore me forever, I will always have to be the one to make the first move and apologize to him, even if I am totally not to blame.
This part of our relationship is making me feel very sad. Aside from this problem, I do love Lev and acknowledge that he has many wonderful qualities. As long as we never disagree on anything or find ourselves in a situation where one of us is angry at the other, all is well. But I know how unrealistic that is, and I’m wondering what I can do to change Lev’s behavior in this regard. I can’t always be chasing after him and feeling so worthless when he ignores me.
There is a term we use in couples’ therapy called “stonewalling,” which describes the dynamic that you are experiencing from Lev. It means that an individual appears to turn into a stone wall, refusing to interact, engage, communicate, or participate. Pretty much the way you would expect a stone to react to you if you were having a conversation with it!
Of course you must be feeling very sad and frustrated over Lev’s behavior toward you. His uncomfortable and hurtful silence is insulting, alienating, unfair, and even frightening–especially considering the fact that you come from a background where there is healthy communication and the ability to work through differences in a fair and mature way. Coming up against Lev’s withdrawal is disturbing at best and, at worst, destructive to the success of your marriage.
Lev’s withdrawal from interactions after the two of you have a disagreement can reflect an attempt to calm himself down from what he perceives is a stressful situation, when he is feeling hurt, angry, or frustrated. But there are many reasons why some individuals shut down in this way. There are those who have experienced trauma during their lifetime and feel the need to disconnect from themselves and the relationship. Sometimes it reflects a need to keep certain secrets. Whatever the reason, stonewalling can definitely cause grave damage to a relationship, because it means that the person who is doing the stonewalling is no longer participating in the relationship and certainly not using the disagreement as an opportunity to do some self-reflection or work toward personal growth.
In terms of what you can do during these episodes, firstly, it’s important for you to recognize that it’s not at all about you. You need to remind yourself that this is the way in which Lev has learned to manage his emotions. Trying to get Lev to open up during such an event will probably only lead to resentment on both sides.
However, when the two of you are experiencing a calm, loving moment together, ask Lev what he thinks would be the best way for you to communicate with him when he starts to shut down. Perhaps during such a safe time, Lev might be able to talk to you about what you can do when he is starting to withdraw from a conversation.
However, if Lev hasn’t shared which way is best to communicate in such a scenario, when you see that Lev is stonewalling, it’s important that you lovingly detach so that you do not enable or perpetuate this unhealthy dynamic. By removing yourself from the situation, your partner is left with no one to focus on (or blame) except himself.
If none of this is helpful, you and Lev ought to see a therapist who specializes in couples’ therapy, since stonewalling can most definitely sabotage your relationship.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295.