When Talking Doesn't Help
If you were to say to the man in your life, “Honey, we need to talk about our relationship,” what do you think would happen?
If he would answer with something like, “I thought you’d never ask!” or, “I’ve been dying to share my feelings about our life together, and I especially want to hear how you feel about us and how you want me to change,” you are luckier than the vast majority of couples. Most women would expect that their men would get distracted, defensive, irritated, fidgety, roll their eyes, or shut down completely, and most men would feel like they’re being punished for a crime they didn’t commit. She knows her lines, he knows his, and it always ends up worse than it started. No wonder the five words a man dreads most are, “Honey, we need to talk.”
It turns out that men are right; talking about your relationship is more likely to make it worse than better. Talking about emotions calms women because they get a shot of oxytocin, the bonding chemical, even from negative interaction. Men don’t want to talk because talking won’t make them feel better. In fact, it will make them feel worse - they get pumped with unpleasant-feeling cortisol in conflictive, emotional talk. Men experience more physiological arousal with more blood flow to their muscles when they have negative emotions. It is physically uncomfortable for them to talk, especially when they feel shame, and they are likely to feel shame when you approach them with anxiety or unhappiness.
There’s something more powerful than the stereotypical nagging wife and stonewalling husband at work here. It’s the same dynamic that seizes both of you when you startle at something on the road while he’s driving. He sees your fear as an assault on his charioteering and either puts a chilly wall between you or becomes an angry Ben Hur to show you how aggressively he can drive.
What happens to both of you when you get afraid of his driving and when you want to talk about your relationship is a primal dynamic that is present in all social animals: Your fear stimulates his shame/aggression. Often punished at an early age for showing vulnerable emotions (Big boys don’t cry!”), males tend to merge shame and aggression. To avoid the exceeding pain of shame, they become aggressive. That is why “Death before dishonor” is not a phrase associated with women’s groups.
We are also unlikely to hear the phrase, “No woman is an island.” Worse than feeling bad for a woman is having no one care that she feels bad. When women talk to each other, they often make connection by exposing vulnerability. If you tell her girlfriend, “I feel sad, lonely, ignored, etc,” she hears your complaint as an invitation to move closer and lets you know that she cares. So why can’t your husband do it like your girlfriends?
By adulthood, normal male socialization has funneled the shame-aggression response into a dread of failure, particularly as a provider, protector, lover, and parent. Confronted with unhappiness from the woman in his life he feels like he’s failing. He feels too inadequate to see the desire for connection that lies beneath her complaints.
Here’s a common example. Sarah was nervous about the weight she had put on when she modeled her new dress for her husband. “How do I look?” she asked.
Sensing her nervousness, Scott replied, “How much did it cost?”
This simple exchange in an otherwise loving relationship started a fight about money that quickly expanded to include sex, in-laws, and their relationship. But the fight wasn’t about any of those things. Her anxiety about her appearance triggered his shame, which he associated with provider inadequacy – he feels he doesn’t make enough money. Of course, his response made her feel like she wasn’t worth the cost of the dress. So that night she didn’t want to have sex with him. His shame as a lover aggravated, he refused to go with her to visit her parents as they had planned.
This invisible fear-shame dynamic is at the core of a great many relationship problems. The good news is that connection soothes both fear and shame. And that’s why you want to talk in the first place, to feel more connected. But it’s hard for him to feel connected when he feels like a failure. Had Sarah simply told Scott the truth, that she bought the dress to look good for him, he would have felt valued rather than threatened. And if Scott had felt protective of his wife’s anxiety, he would have reassured her, which would have dissipated his feeling of inadequacy.
Always try to connect before you talk about anything emotional. When people feel valued they cooperate; when they feel devalued or threatened, they resist.
The best advice for men is to incorporate small connective gestures into their routine, e.g. “Brush my teeth—kiss my wife. Pour my coffee—pour her coffee, answer work emails—email my love.” Be aware of how important she is to you—she provides the meaning of your life, so don’t wait to show love for her until she’s got her bags packed and ready to walk out the door. Hug her at least six times a day. Surprise her now and then. Help her often.
Women should start conversations with touch. Men need 2-3 times more touching to feel connected. Yes, they like non-sexual touching, as long as they’re not sex-starved. Men feel more connected through mutual activities, so try to do things with them. Women report that they have the best talks with their husbands while walking and driving because then he’s doing something with you. Understand that he feels connected to you when you are nearby but letting him do his routine. And don’t forget sex. Orgasm releases oxytocin and is his only source of the bonding chemical. It increases his desire to be close.
Fortunately, we have powerful internal signals of the fear-shame dynamic. If a woman feels anxious and her man isn’t helping, he’s probably feeling shame and she needs to make a compassionate connection with him. If a man is feeling hassled or trapped and his woman is making it worse, he can bet that she’s feeling fear of isolation or deprivation; he needs to get in touch with how much he cares for her and reassure her. The discomfort they both feel is not something that one is doing to the other. Rather, it is happening to both of them, and together and they can disarm it. Mutually disarming the fear-shame dynamic is the most effective way to achieve the closeness you both want, which is, at heart, a love beyond words.