Dear Dr. Jed,
My boyfriend and I have been together for just over four years and I’m noticing terrible mood shifts that are increasingly difficult to live with. He becomes extremely frustrated, irritable, angry, and depressed. I can tell that he is becoming more distant and I’m worried he’s thinking of leaving.
Whenever I try and get him to talk about his unhappiness or what I can do to make things better, it seems to make him angry and he pulls away even more. I love him very much and I know he loves me, but I feel our relationship slipping away and I don’t know what to do. Please, can you help? BL
I get calls and emails like these every day. A man is becoming irritated, angry, and depressed. The relationship is in trouble and both people are hurting. The woman wants to talk and the man reacts with anger and becomes more withdrawn.
For men, the five most off-putting words in the English language are, “Honey, we need to talk.” The words can be said with love or anger, compassion or disdain, with despair or hope. It seems no matter how they are presented, they are met with a resistance bordering on terror by most men.
“I feel caught in a horrible trap,” one woman told me. “If I let things alone and don’t say anything, our relationship continues to go downhill. “If I try and talk to him about ways we can fix things, he acts like I’m trying to kill him. He refuses to talk and our relationship continues to deteriorate. What do I do to save us?”
Why should a woman’s desire to talk be met with such resistance? The simple answer is this: While talking about their relationship usually helps a woman feel better, it usually makes a man feel worse. My wife, Carlin, and I got a glimpse into this dynamic while we were driving into town from our home on Shimmins Ridge.
The road into town has lots of curves and it was raining a bit. I hit a few of the divider bumps and Carlin put her hands on the dashboard to brace herself. I gave her a hostile look. She calls it my beady-eyed stare. And turned back to the road. Within minutes we were having a fight about some inconsequential issue that neither of us could remember.
Later we talked it through and realized that when I hit the divider bump, Carlin felt a jolt of fear. Since I’m a good driver, I knew there was no reason for her to be afraid. When she braced herself I took it as a judgment on my driving and my ability to protect her from harm. I got a jolt of shame. To protect myself from feeling ashamed I got angry, which triggered more fear in Carlin, which in turn triggers more shame in me. This all happens in microseconds and outside our conscious awareness. Many of our fights, we realized result from this cycle of shame and fear.
After more than 40 years as a marriage and family counselor, I’ve found that men, often unknowingly, trigger fear in women. And women, often unknowingly, trigger shame in men. This is nowhere truer than when we feel our relationship is in trouble. What Carlin and I found was that talking about our relationship problems actually can make things worse, rather than better.
This took us a long time to realize. We’re both counselors and make our living talking to people. We’ve encouraged couples to communicate more and communication usually means talking. But we’ve discovered there are other ways to heal a relationship that talking about it.
Our experiences are like ones that Pat Love and Steven Stosny describe in their book, How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It. They say that the real reason a woman wants to talk about the relationship “is that disconnection makes her feel anxious, and on a deeper level, isolated and afraid. The real reason the man doesn’t want to talk about the relationship is that her dissatisfaction with him makes him feel like a failure. On a deeper level, he feels ashamed.”
They go on to say that, “His shame is too great to allow him to understand her fear, and her fear keeps her from seeing his shame. When they try and alleviate their feelings of vulnerability in opposite ways—by talking and not talking—all they end up sharing are disappointment and heartache.”
She wants to alleviate her fear by talking. He wants to protect himself from shame by not talking. It’s no wonder that so many men and women become stressed and depressed. So, here are some things you can do to break through this impasse.
- Realize that connection is more important than communication.
We often come to believe that a good relationship requires good communication. But the most important thing we need in our relationship is connection. We want to feel understood, cared for, seen, and heard. Communication is one way in which we hope to connect.
- Words are a small part of communication.
Those who study communication suggest that at least 90% of communication is non-verbal. Dr. Albert Mehrabian, author of Silent Messages, conducted several studies on nonverbal communication. He found that 7% of any message is conveyed through words, 38% through certain vocal elements, and 55% through nonverbal elements (facial expressions, gestures, posture, etc).
- Understanding male shame helps men and women have greater compassion.
One of the most important communication tools men can use is acknowledging that we’re experiencing a “jolt of shame.” Male shame is rarely acknowledged or talked about it. For years I felt shame, but never knew what I was feeling. Once I knew, I often felt ashamed that I felt ashamed. It was very freeing for me to acknowledge I was feeling shame. That allowed Carlin to know when something she was doing was triggering shame in me.
- Understanding female fear helps men and women create a safe harbor for resolving problems.
Women seem to be better able to acknowledge their “jolts of fear” than men are able to acknowledge their “jolts of shame.” When I was triggered by shame it was difficult for me to see how I was triggering fear in Carlin. It helped when I realized that I could accept and acknowledge her fear without blaming myself for causing it.
- Once our shame and fears are quieted, we feel more comfortable talking.
We often assume that men “don’t want to communicate” about difficult issues. What we really mean is that men don’t want to talk. Even though women are generally better at verbal communication than men are, men will often open up and talk when they feel safe and they don’t feel criticized or blamed.
- There are many ways men and women can increase their connection and work through relationship problems without talking about them. Here are a few Carlin and I use.
- When we feel disconnected, we take turns touching each other. I like my head rubbed and she enjoys having her feet massaged.
- Walking together and enjoying nature can be healing.
- Having a meal and spending the first half in silent appreciation can be helpful.
- Writing about a relationship problem and how we feel often brings new insights and resolutions, without talking.
- We imagine that we are taking a problem and throwing it off an imaginary bridge. It’s a wonderful exercise and often allows us to release a problem quickly and easily.
Previously published on Men Alive.
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