Men can be reluctant to speak up about their own needs and desires in relationships because they have been socialized to be emotionally self-reliant and to feel ashamed of needing anything from anyone, particularly from a woman. Research points to socialization as the primary cause, but it is likely not the sole cause.
Another reason that men often silence themselves in relationships is the fear of conflict and, ultimately, the fear of abandonment. Men are often not confident of their ability to resolve conflict with their partner, so they are afraid and hesitant to speak up about their needs in relationships because they worry that speaking up will make things worse, maybe even much worse. To be clear, women also fear abandonment, but they often focus on adult concerns, such as the economics of divorce. Men’s fears of abandonment are often more emotional and primitive. Most men are raised primarily by women, and partnering with a woman as an adult activates their earliest attachment insecurities.
Men’s fear of abandonment in relationships is perhaps most visible in the lengths that men will go to avoid conflict. Some men monitor their partners’ emotional states constantly and carefully, scanning for signs of potential conflict, criticism, or disapproval. Men are socialized to believe that they are responsible for their partner’s happiness, so any evidence that their partner is unhappy or dissatisfied is often interpreted by men as criticism or failure. They immediately assume they have done something wrong, that they are in the doghouse, and will not return to favor until they figure out what they have done wrong and correct it. Reassurance from their wives that they are not “in trouble” is rarely sufficient for men to feel they are off the hook.
To avoid women being angry with them, men willingly contort themselves to almost any extent. It is not uncommon for men to become so conflict-avoidant in their intimate relationships that placating their partners becomes their raison d’être, the most important thing in their relationship. The childhood mantra, “If Mamma ain’t happy, no one’s happy,” is replaced with, “Happy wife, happy life.” Men can become so unsettled by their partners being angry or disapproving of them that nothing else matters until it is fixed. All they want is for her to stop being mad at them.
Over time, men can get so gun-shy about conflict in their relationships that they just stop trying. When men talk about the aspects of their marriages in which they are unhappy, I ask if they have ever talked to their partners about these problems. They look at me as if I were crazy because I don’t understand how scared they are to talk to her.
When men are willing to learn basic communication skills, they generally feel relieved. Being more emotionally open is not as difficult as they had feared. As a result, they feel much closer to their partner and grateful that there is less stress and conflict in their relationships.
This post was previously published on Psychology Today. It includes brief excerpts from the author’s book, Hidden in Plain Sight: How Men’s Fears of Women Shape Their Intimate Relationships (2021, Lasting Impact Press).
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