By Kerry Lusignan, MA, LMHC
Even if you put in a grueling 40+ hour work week, cook dinner, change diapers, and coach your kid’s soccer team, guess what? You may still not get it right!
Despite your best attempts (and successes) at showing up for your family, it’s entirely possible you’re still coming home to an unhappy wife, feeling criticized and unappreciated.
To make matters worse, there seems to be no end in sight and nothing you can do to fix it. The bar keeps getting raised. The target keeps being moved. Peace, it seems, is ever elusive and your partner increasingly impossible to please. Nothing you do or say seems to help, so you say nothing.
For many men in modern heterosexual marriages, the tendency to become quiet and withdraw during conflict is born out of a well-intended desire to focus on the positive, a propensity towards not wanting to escalate things further or increase the discord with their spouse. For others, it’s an involuntary reaction to stress, a logical form of damage control that nature has hardwired into you and Dr. Gottman’s research supports this.
Men in heterosexual relationships are consistently more likely to stonewall than their female partners. In fact, 85% of Dr. Gottman’s stonewallers are male. Stonewalling occurs when a listener withdraws from an interaction, refusing to participate or engage, essentially becoming unresponsive.
When it happens there’s a good chance your body has gone into diffuse physiological arousal, or DPA in the Gottman lexicon. The most immediate symptom you’ll notice is an accelerated heart rate, but DPA will also cause an increase in sweating, elevated stress hormone production, and as a result an impairment in your ability to think clearly and process information.
One of the hardest things about DPA and flooding is that the symptoms that it triggers in men tend to escalate women and their vulnerabilities.
Once entangled in this devil’s snare of gridlock and disrepair, your partner will perpetually come to you from a stance of desperation, growing increasingly critical and relentless with her complaints, and in turn, you will be vulnerable to shutting down or blowing up. Stonewalling and DPA breeds pursuit, which then fosters more stonewalling and DPA. Simply put, you get quiet, and she gets loud – it’s a vicious cycle and a lonely one.
Being largely on the receiving end of a litany of complaints can result in feeling like there is little room to bring your own experience, she’s always beating you to the punch, and so you go unseen.
In fact, I’d argue that to be a man in our society is in many ways an inherently lonely stance. A code of silence pervades male culture stating that it is not masculine to talk about feelings. Can you imagine what a different world it would be if you were given permission to express the passion and range you have for sports or politics in the context of an intimate relationship?
These very tendencies that can make you predisposed to closing yourself off from your partner are deeply rooted in our society, where boys and men are not encouraged or socialized to talk about their emotions or to display vulnerability. In fact, there is ample evidence to support that these emotions are beaten right out of you from a very young age.
So it seems, even if you are well-intentioned, you may very well miss the mark and find yourself on the outs with your partner and utterly at a loss.
The bitter irony, from what we see at The Northampton Center For Couples Therapy, where we treat over one hundred couples per week, is that this inherently isolating experience is an epidemic.
When you come from a land where nobody utters the words of emotions, there can be no language. And with no language – connection will slowly erode. It’s a setup for both sexes. She is speaking in tongues, and you will feel that you have none.
I’m going to let you in on a secret – while it may seem like you have no power to please her, you have enormous influence to create change and save your marriage.
The good news is there are concrete, research-based tools that you can learn and apply to your relationship right now, putting you and your partner on the path to connection, healing, passion, and play.
You may very well be tired, and feeling increasingly ineffective, but research shows that applying these five tools will lighten your load and the tide will turn for the better.
1. Accept that you’re not the fixer (or the breaker) of your relationship
It’s not uncommon to fluctuate between deep shame when hitting your partner’s disappointment and as Dr. Gottman puts it, self-righteous indignation. Often it comes from an understandable desire to want to fix things (See: It’s Not About the Nail) and a tendency towards inflated responsibility when you fail. The reality is far more complicated, and it’s okay not to know what to do and feel at a loss. Have compassion for yourself and your partner – nobody is total to blame here and fixing things must be a team effort.
2. Give yourself (and her) permission to take breaks
If your flooded or in fight-or-flight mode, taking a time-out is critical. Couples often subject one another to exhausting windows of fighting in a desperate desire to find a resolution. The paradox is that this frequently worsens things. There is an art to taking a good time-out, which will require thoughtfulness on your part at a time when you are agitated, but a poorly initiated time-out runs the risk of escalating your already panicked spouse. Calmly tell your partner when you are overwhelmed and reassure her that you care about what she is saying and want to revisit the issue. And once calm, make sure you’re the one to re-initiate otherwise issues will remain unresolved and fester.
3. Look fear in the face
While it may go against every fighting bone in your body, often, the most powerful thing you can do during a fight is to look into your partner’s eyes. If it’s consensual, you may even initiate holding her hand. The physical act of turning towards one another can greatly reduce the amount of fear and aggression between both of you. And if you are stonewalling, she may even find your touch tremendously reassuring while you remain silent. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but a hug can be a haven to an angry and frightened spouse.
4. Repair, repair, repair
According to Dr. Gottman, the difference between the “Masters” and the “Disasters” of marriage isn’t that the Masters fight less, it’s that they repair more. And interestingly, repair effectiveness is not based on the type of repair you do, so there’s room to be yourself. Try initiating an apology, using humor (not sarcasm), or suggesting that you start the conversation over while putting your hand on your partner’s shoulder and lowering your voice. Research shows that repair is most effective when implemented quickly, so best to err on the side of making amends when you sense things begin to go awry.
5. Seek help early
Seeking couples therapy is a sign of health, not dysfunction. Sadly, only 19% of couples seek help – and of those that do, couples therapy has an 85% success rate. In other words, the majority of couples who attend evidence-based couples therapy regain a happy, healthy relationship, with resources and tools to help them maintain it for years to come.
Modern heterosexual marriage is calling on both men and women to be in partnership in ways that pose new and complicated challenges. However, with these demands, there is the potential for a richer and deeper connection than ever before. Keep your sons in mind as you learn to do something so brave and unfamiliar, and know that even when it feels hopeless, you have the power to create change that is lasting and paves the way for your children and their children to come.
This article was originally published on The Gottman Relationship Blog.
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