— Andy McDowell (@AirspaceDude) February 13, 2015
My husband snapped at me with impatience the other night and what could have been over in a few seconds erupted into World War III. Why? Because he was expressing disappointment in how I was reacting to something and I responded with defensiveness. That’s all it took and we went on to have it out for a few rounds.
The thing men need the most can be the hardest thing for us to give.
It’s creating the safe place that can be challenging. Sure, we can be present and loving if a man is sad in front of us, if he is talking about being disappointed or worried about something. We can listen if he is calm, quiet and reflective. Creating a safe place for that is probably pretty easy for most of us.
Here’s the thing about feelings, though. They don’t always come up perfectly scripted and modulated. Feelings don’t always make sense and they sure as hell aren’t always rational. Feelings are sometimes reactive. As I was reminded the other night, feelings sometimes sound like blame. They can feel like accusations.
If we really want to be that safe place for men to share their feelings, we have to have a better understanding of what that means.
It’s hard for anyone to express sadness, disappointment, or regret. Those softer feelings are vulnerable and can leave us feeling weak. That’s usually where anger comes in. When we’re mad, we’re large and in charge. We feel more in control. Our defenses are up and we can’t get hurt. Sometimes, we get sick and tired of feeling sick and tired and that pisses us off.
Men don’t experience feelings any differently and it becomes easier and more permissible to get angry. If women really want to be a safe place for men’s feelings, they have to increase their comfort level with anger. This doesn’t mean lowering boundaries or repeatedly accepting disrespectful behavior but it does mean accepting that sometimes when a man is really hurt, he isn’t going to express it perfectly. He may yell. He may raise his voice, be short, sarcastic, and flippant.
This shouldn’t be a surprise as women are no different. We can be imperfect when we’re mad, too. Creating a loving space for a man’s anger means staying still, quieting your defensive reactions, and allowing him space to calm down.
Accepting a man’s anger requires patience in the moment. It means trusting that where he is in that moment isn’t where he’ll always be. He might not land in an angry, accusatory place once he calms down and starts talking about what’s bothering him. However, he’ll never start talking about the root of his upset if his initial reaction isn’t accepted.
We have to be prepared to hear that it’s our fault.
It’s not easy when he starts talking and the first thing you hear is “Well, you…..”. Getting defensive can almost feel like an automatic response when someone starts with that phrase and if we react with that defensiveness, we’ve immediately stopped listening. We perceive that any good intent we had on our parts wasn’t seen or trusted and it can feel like he is taking his bad mood out on us.
No one wants to create a safe place for that! Our instinct is to run from that, to push it away. For men, that’s rejection. That says “Sure honey, I care about what you think and feel as long as it doesn’t have anything to do with me.”
Being a safe place means accepting that we aren’t perfect. It means understanding that with intent or without it, we can sometimes be a source of pain for the person we love. It also means understanding and being calm and patient when we’ve been misunderstood-when something really isn’t our fault. Good communication doesn’t happen at high volume or high-intensity.
Creating safety will sometimes mean sitting with blame until things calm and you can talk it out and of course, it means accepting responsibility and apologizing when we have hurt or let them down, even if it wasn’t our intention.
It’s not on us to solve the problem.
Men really aren’t that different from us when it comes to talking about feelings. They want to be heard, validated, and understood. When we rush to problem solving, we’re not really hearing what they have to say. He might very well want or need our perspective on a situation but before you rush in to save the day, be sure to ask if he’s drowning and wants your help. He just may want company while he figures it out.
We can validate the feeling even when we don’t get why he feels that way.
Men don’t always understand our reactions to things. We can get upset or sad about things that seem little or insignificant to them. The same is true for men. They may react with feelings to a situation that seem confusing or just don’t make sense. We have to be careful not to judge the feeling and instead relate to it. You may not get why something is angering or saddening your guy. He may be disappointed about something that you just don’t get. That’s ok. Relate to the feeling. You’ve been mad, sad, and disappointed before. Stay in that place and relate to the feeling.
They don’t always need to talk about it. Really.
Sometimes women put too much emphasis on conversation. Sometimes, words aren’t necessary. Sometimes, he’s just going need someone who can be quiet with him, someone who can keep him company while he figures things out, himself. Maybe he needs company at the gym while he works it out. He might need to be held, hugged, or have his hand held. Making love to him sensitively and with compassion also creates safety and acceptance. Being a safe person sometimes means accepting that not talking is an acceptable option.
Accept when they’re done talking and Let. It. Go.
My poor husband. I am a therapist. When I am not bungling up his feelings and making them about me, I am usually all too happy to jump right in and talk…and talk…and talk. Poor guy. Not everyone likes to, or needs to, go round and round their feelings ad nauseam. Sometimes, they just need to put it out there that they are going through something and then they can move on.
Safety means letting them. Women can get sucked into the intimacy that gets created when a man opens up and that feeling can tempt us to drag out the moment longer than he is comfortable with. Take your cue from him. When he’s done talking, let him be done.
After all, safety also means being aware of what’s going on with him and following up a day or two later to see how he’s feeling or how it all worked out.
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