It is normal to be upset when upsetting things occur. “Normal” doesn’t mean good or healthy, just what is expected under the circumstance. So, for example, someone, let’s call her Caroline, might scream because her husband had been attacking her relentlessly, even waking her up at night to do so. Phil, her husband, might be jealous and that could be “normal” in that it makes sense under the circumstances. His jealousy was a result of his insecurity which was a result of his relationship (or lack of one) to his parents growing up. But all of that doesn’t make it good or right.
What Is Stonewalling?
What about Ben? Ben is a nice, friendly guy. He’s good to his friends, gives a hand when needed, plays ball with his sons. But when he and his wife argue, he is cold as ice. She can yell at him and he remains calm. Why is that?
No, Ben has not had years of meditation or yoga.
Ben had a rough beginning, spending nearly all his time at home waiting for the inevitable beating from his father. There was some point his father needed to make and he would hit harder and harder to make it. Although there was no escaping the beatings, Ben learned that he could still “win” the battle of wills if he could somehow let his father know that his point was not taken. The cooler Ben would be, the more furious his father was, and amidst the pain, Ben felt good inside.
So for Ben, experiencing pain while being unfazed became a desirable combination. Any threat of pain was a cue to calm down. Calming down meant that he “won.” Ben never even realized that discussions with his wife did not have to be contests.
Given Ben’s history, his reaction is normal and predictable.
What’s Wrong With Stonewalling?
Is it healthy? – No. Here’s why:
By pairing that sense of victory and pleasure with pain and calm, it almost guarantees that Ben will enjoy battles. In fact, Ben may create them. That’s to his detriment, his wife’s detriment, the detriment of their children, and of course the relationship.
In addition, this puts him worlds apart from his wife because he cannot feel empathy for her pain. To him, pain is something you endure and if you can endure it well, that’s a point of pride. Instead of hurting, it gets turned into a positive. How in the world can he understand the rest of the world that feels pain as it should be felt—something that hurts?
If Ben is in other ways intelligent, he may come to understand that what was an excellent coping mechanism for him in a toxic home is standing in the way of his relationships. Perhaps if he’s reading this right now, that light bulb will go on for him.
From there, he will have to work on separating in his mind—and heart—the painful aspect of conflict from the pleasurable aspect of “winning.” He will next have to find other sources of pleasure, healthy ones. Perhaps he can get involved in sports or chess. If being able to connect to his wife and children matters, then he can develop healthy ways to win. And then of course, pain will be painful, as it should be