Dear Rachel,

I have what I think is a typical male style of communication that is direct, competitive and combative, challenging my “opponent.” It’s like a sport, a game.

But it didn’t quite work with my now ex-wife. I remember her clamping her arms together, (figuratively) stamping her foot, and ending the discussion with “Well, that’s the way I feel about it.” The conversation was over when I thought it was just starting. She stonewalled me, and that was it.

Back then, I saw my communication style as constructive, a way to examine issues and come to a conclusion. What I see now is that this creates a barrier when I am communicating in a loving relationship with a woman, particularly a woman who has a—very common!—communication style that is indirect, dances around the issues, searches for consensus and tries to avoid a combative debate.

How can I better communicate with women in the future?



Dear Stonewalled,

How difficult this must have been for you, especially in your marriage. Although you seem to think most people who stonewall are women, this is not true. Men can equally, and sometimes even more so, be characterized by this trait.

How Male and Female Brains Differ

Brain science reveals that, in general, women’s brains are more developed in the areas of feelings, verbal processes and interpersonal-relating skills. Men’s brains are more developed in the areas of problem-solving and logical processes.1

So it’s understandable that a man will feel overwhelmed or inadequate to cope with the expression of feelings he has difficulty processing. He may sense that a problem that he can’t solve has been thrust at him. He shuts down or withdraws in order to protect himself from experiencing what may feel like unbearable discomfort or incompetence.

Of course, these are generalizations that do not necessarily apply to every man or woman. As your question illustrates, some women do have difficulty owning and dealing with feelings. And some men are verbal and are comfortable with dealing constructively with their own feelings and with hearing others express theirs.

But regardless of who is doing the stonewalling, it hurts. Here are some tips to relate to a stonewaller, keep the lines of communication open, and prevent stonewalling in the future.

Tips for Relating to a Stonewaller

It you aren’t careful, it’s easy to let hurt feelings guide your response, which can exacerbate the situation if you keep trying to engage someone who stonewalls. Your spouse will probably feel more overwhelmed and defensive if you lash out at him or her for behaving so insensitively toward you.

When tempted to react negatively to someone who stonewalls you, you can best help the relationship by putting into practice the wisdom of Shimon ben Zoma, who asks, “Who is strong?” He answers: “He who subdues his personal inclination, as it is said,2 ‘He who is slow to anger is better than a strong man, and a master of his passions is better than a conqueror of a city.’”3

The message is to refrain from behaving impulsively, which could result in negative consequences. A knee-jerk reaction to feeling stressed by someone’s stonewalling behavior, for example, might be to lash out in anger or to withdraw physically or emotionally.

As the person being stonewalled, you might not say anything in response, but you might hold a grudge against the person who did it. One of the 613 mitzvahs in the Torah forbids us from holding a grudge,4 so it’s important both to keep the lines of communication open and to discuss your feelings in a way that is kind and respectful to both your spouse and yourself. Tell your spouse what it feels like on your end when stonewalling occurs, and say what you would prefer to have happen instead.

You can also use positive self-talk to move from feeling hurt to feeling compassionate. Instead of telling yourself “He doesn’t love me” when you’re being stonewalled, recognize that he or she is escaping from feeling overwhelmed or incompetent. Instead of taking it personally, you can tell yourself, “He needs a break to regroup.”

Preventing Stonewalling

One good way to prevent your communication from deteriorating to the point of stonewalling is to have regular “marriage meetings.” Marriage meetings are gentle conversations that use positive communication techniques, such as “I”-statements.

By using “I”-statements, you can help your partner be open to hearing you. Try saying in advance of a conversation you sense could be difficult to hear, “I just want to say how I’m feeling. I want you to hear me without trying to fix anything.” You can add, “I’d like it if after I express myself, you’ll say something like, ‘I hear you,’ ‘I understand,’ or just nod to communicate that.”

By stating what you’d like in advance, you remove the perceived threat from the picture and thereby make it easier for your partner to stick around.

When you use these and other positive communication skills, your partner is likely to become more comfortable, direct and responsive, and you’re both likely to enjoy feeling more connected and appreciative towards each other.