Marriage 911: Honoring Walls and Managing Resistance

Young couple with emotional walls.
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Mentoring and Emotional Walls

So, there you are. You’re finally sitting down for a Marriage 911 session with your mentee. There’s a bit of small talk, a few questions about the previous week, and then it’s time to talk about this week’s content. But something seems off. Your mentee is holding back. Yes, there’s an issue. No, your mentee doesn’t want to discuss it.

What’s happening? You’ve just encountered an emotional wall.

Emotional walls — or barriers — are common when dealing with difficult issues. Don’t worry, it’s unlikely you’ve done anything to cause a problem in the mentoring relationship. Instead, you’ve just discovered something very important. And what you do with this discovery may open the door — and open a heart — to healing and hope.

Signs of Emotional Walls and Resistance

How do you know when you’ve bumped into an emotional wall with your mentor? Watch for these telltale signs: Denial, avoiding certain topics, becoming defensive, disengaging from the conversation, or hostility.

What Are Emotional Walls?

In almost any relationship — especially the marriage relationship — there will be moments when one person feels the need to erect a boundary that feels to others like an impenetrable wall. It may stem from a request that was made and ignored or the person feels significantly vulnerable and threatened. In other cases, a person’s inner conflict with trust or lack of skill in self-care could cause them to build an emotional wall. Whatever the case, at that moment, the wall interrupts the process of intimate connection and attachment and creates a feeling of emotional distance.

As a Marriage 911 mentor, you will likely encounter someone’s emotional walls. To you, as an outsider, it may feel like resistance. Your mentee’s reluctance or refusal to talk about an issue may seem frustrating. You may even think, How can I make any difference in this person’s heart if they refuse to open up? Those feelings are valid. Now imagine what it must be like for this person’s spouse. A spouse encountering such a wall from their partner could understandably feel anxious, alone, or even abandoned. When facing a boundary, spouses can often react with judgment that the wall is bad and fundamentally damaging to the marriage.

Why Do People Build Walls?

Emotional walls are created when someone feels unsafe and insecure. The person who feels threatened will actively maintain their walls in response to a perceived threat and potential source of pain. The purpose of the wall is to protect an incredibly valuable and vulnerable child of God. Walls in our relationships can be understood as a person’s effort to regain a sense of emotional security.

Honoring Walls While Managing Resistance

Let’s go back to the mentoring session. You’re sitting across from your mentee and you’re talking through the week’s material, and then the conversation stops. You’ve encountered an emotional wall. Now what?

Your first thought may be to push for more information. What’s going on? Why are you holding back? Let’s get past this roadblock. You have the best intentions. Let’s work through this. Unfortunately, you’re sending the wrong message to your mentee. Any effort to tear down the wall, scale the wall, judge the wall, or dishonor the wall in any way merely increases the feelings of threat. You’re sending a message that tells your mentor that you are indeed unsafe. Thus, the person with the wall will feel less safe and redouble their efforts to maintain it.

Rather than bringing a wrecking ball to your next mentoring session, try something different. Instead of tearing down the wall, honor it. The wall is there because the person you’re mentoring feels unsafe. So, recognize that the wall is a form of protection. There’s a valuable and vulnerable person hiding behind the wall. And you have the opportunity to recognize that value and respect the feelings of vulnerability.
Often, when you show genuine care and protection, your mentee may come to recognize the possibility of safety and begin to lower their wall.

When you encounter a wall, don’t argue with the person or question their resistance. Doing so creates “micro-confrontations,” and the resistant person will either offer unproductive answers to your questions or build higher, thicker emotional walls. Why? They feel unsafe. No amount of prodding or pushing will tear down the walls. The best way to deal with resistance is to slow down your attempts to “push through” and acknowledge the resistance. Then, let your mentee know that you will not attempt to push through their walls because you want to honor their boundaries and create a safe place for their heart to open.

Expect to Encounter Walls

Don’t be surprised if your mentee shows resistance during Marriage 911. Resistance is common. The mistake is in thinking it’s something to be overcome. When mentors try to overcome resistance, they enter the same dynamic spouses face when confronting each other over emotional walls. The wall won’t come down because the spouse is afraid. It doesn’t matter if the fear is rational … or helpful. It’s still real fear.

A better strategy is to expect resistance and then when you encounter it, honor it. You may want to tell your mentee, “I’m sensing you don’t want to talk about this, which is completely okay. We really don’t have to. This is completely your call.” Repeat this any time you encounter resistance. It gives your mentee the opportunity to consider lowering the wall and opening their heart.

Another tactic is to listen to the mentee’s fears, honor their walls, and say, “Rather than trying to push through, how about pausing and exploring what is making this so scary.” It may seem an odd approach, but again, this gives your mentee the chance to evaluate their fears and consider lowering the wall.

Your Role: Create Safety

Because you are dealing with couples in crisis, and because those couples are hurting, you will be faced time and again with emotional walls. That means your role as a mentor is to create a place of safety for hurting individuals. People are more likely to open up — and they’ll be far less resistant — when they encounter empathy, and feel safe, heard, validated, and respected.

Need Help?

Remember that as a Marriage 911 mentor, you can contact the Focus on the Family counseling team to ask for help.

As you continue to work with mentees, you will encounter resistance. Your goal is to help your mentee evaluate the emotional walls and choose to open their heart.

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