Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Silent Killer

No, I’m not talking about high blood pressure. That’s physical and not the focus of this blog. I’m talking about a relationship killer.  Dr. John Gottman calls it ‘stonewalling’ – I call it an emotional freeze-out.

When a conflict has gotten out of hand and has escalated to the point of intense anger and no progress, a withdrawal and cool down is a wise move. It can help prevent a relationship from moving to feelings of powerlessness and futility. But when the withdrawal is prolonged, it may do just the opposite: validate the feelings of hopelessness. Even if the motivation behind these freeze-outs is protective in nature, they can be interpreted as intentionally manipulative, and an ultimate form of passive-aggressive behavior.

The freeze-out is a very powerful move. It communicates contempt for the other person – and it almost always promotes intense anxiety in your partner. We might say that it is the opposite of loving with the kind of patience that God requires.

Ephesians 4:26 says: And “don’t sin by letting anger control you. Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry.”

Does this mean that we must resolve conflicts before retiring for the night? Absolutely not! Some conflicts are unresolvable. What it means is that we must deal with our anger and make peace in a timely manner. Sometimes that means learning how to lovingly detach. When a spouse is operating in an addiction, it may be impossible to get close, but we can refrain from hostile or punishing behavior.

I have known couples that will go days or weeks without communicating with each other – staying mad at each other. This is a classic power struggle taken to the extreme. But often it is only one person who is maximally defended inside an ice castle of their own building.   

What to do? 

  • First, both people need to practice self-soothing. Most of the time our feelings are out of proportion to the size of the offense.  We can reassure ourselves that things are not as bad as they feel. We can remember that we love this person, even if we don’t like them at the moment. 
  • We can refrain from indulging in extreme or stress-inducing thinking (“this is terrible, awful, meaningless, hopeless, abusive, etc.”)
  • We can intentionally stay connected by making small repair attempts. Repair attempts are things like a meaningful touch, or a silly smile that breaks the ice or a light-hearted phrase that lets the other person know that it is safe to connect (carefully).

Nan & I have got our conflicts down to under five minutes – rarely longer. And it is not because we always agree. It is because we value the integrity of our relationship above winning an argument.  Even though it always feels like a sacrifice at that moment – well, that’s the goal of maturity.   

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