Some gorgeous, heartbreakingly great words about trusting God for the journey into aging and illness from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ. Thank God for his life and writings. LSB
Nobody likes to hear someone close to them be critical, blaming or shaming. It feels bad. And sometimes scary. It turns out that when women talk like that to their husbands, contrary to popular opinion, most men feel this intense criticism very strongly in their bodies. And because male bodies “rev up” faster than women’s in stress (heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, tunnel vision), in order to protect themselves and their relationships from too much emotion, men frequently, readily, as a default, go into Defense mode.
It’s vital for happy, flexible marriages to have partners who know how to manage difficult conversations. There will be many of them over the years.
As I said in my last post, women have to learn how to bring up their complaints softly, gently, and with a caring touch.
Men need to recognize their usual default of Defensiveness, and learn to lower their emotional walls quickly. If men can do this, while at the same time women practice being more gentle, the best situation for a positive interaction around difficult topics happens.
The most successful couples work on this communication posture change together. Trusting that the other is doing their best to move out of their “automatic” thinking/behavior/posture and tone to a more couple-friendly communication strategy.
Because I talk about these automatic couple missteps every day in my therapy practice, I know this is one of the most common couple problems. No one part of the couple can fix the problem completely on their own : each person in the marriage has a piece of the solution!
If I had the opportunity to share one essential marital tool with every wife in America, I know exactly what I would say:
Learn to bring up difficult topics with your partner in a calm, quiet and focused voice.
Marital researcher Dr. John Gottman has studied tens of thousands of marital conversations over 30 + years. He has found that there are 4 distinct communication habits that are poison to happy relationships. He calls them the “Four Horsemen,” like the biblical horsemen that bring in the end of times in the book of Revelation.
He has learned that men have a faster body response of adrenaline (increased heart rate, blood flow to the extremities, tunnel focus of attention) than most women to partner conflict. That means that when many women are just getting into the meat of their problem, their partner has become ready to run, fight and defend. It makes it very hard for men to stay focused and listen calmly without enormous effort.
If every woman could develop the personal skill of bringing up difficult discussions with their partner in a calmer way, their male partner is less apt to “flood,” focus and defend. And the conversation is more likely to be productive and problem-solving.
It’s a skill we practice in therapy all the time. Are you able to bring difficult topics up to your partner in a calm, cooperative way? If not, you may want to start working on this skill.
What is it that I wish I could tell every husband in America? Well, that’s for next time.
“Men seem to have a mental file drawer where they can store unpleasant experience. Open it up, drop it in, slam it shut. Done.” One of my friends was talking about her own experience in her marriage, and wondered if I agreed.
Well, it’s complicated. I do think that in western culture, men are expected to be problem solvers: movers, shakers, thinkers. This is what it takes to succeed in a market economy, where competition for work and other resources parallels the competition for food, shelter and safety of our earliest human ancestors. This ability to compartmentalize their lives? I see it as a psychological defense. Men are taught early in life that boys don’t cry, that when in pain they should shake it off, and that they need to be prepared to bring themselves, if not their families, and their communities to the front lines of life’s battles every day. And if their life battle isn’t a literal one, it certainly is core male metaphor.
That old saw, biology is destiny, is rather real. Men don’t bear children; women do. And women’s bodies and brains have for tens of thousands of years shaped women’s experiences of themselves as child bearer, child protector and nurturer. Women’s brains (recent fMRI imaging bears this out) have been primed to first see the world through relationship and emotional perspective. Men have brains that have developed to give a stronger preference to problem solving.
No wonder we can have trouble talking to and with each other. Women complain that their men don’t listen to them; that they simply hear every conversation with their partner as a plea for information, solution or fix. Men complain that they don’t know what their women partners want from them, if it isn’t what they are naturally good at.
I see this difference in my work as a therapist, but I see it as much through a cultural and family lens as I do a biological or neurological one. Yes, human beings have had gendered roles around children and family life as long as we have recorded history. Yes, we inherit strong personality traits from our parents, who themselves have inherited similar traits from their families. Yes, our culture has deep, anxiously held gender meanings for men (witness the current chaos that transgendered or gender-queer youth have when trying to play high school sport of their gender preference, not their biology) and you will begin to understand how hard it is for men to be really comfortable with their emotional lives.
But men, like women, are people. And we human beings all have these biological responses to the world called emotions that give us information and neurological action split seconds BEFORE our brains kick in to gear with thinking. Men are just taught to rush through them to get to their preferred way of being, thinking. Women are encouraged by biology and culture to notice emotion and better integrate it into their thought.
How can we get through this gendered issue to a better, more satisfying way of being with each other? I teach my clients to reach for their emotional reactions first. I ask men to think about looking for their female partner’s emotional experience, to respond to that, before they begin to problem solve. “Empathy first,” I intone, time and time again. And for women, I teach them tolerance for their partner’s (perceived) emotional dismissal, and patience as they must ask time and time again for their husband to listen and understand them first before they tell them what they ought to do.
We are in this together, men and women. We are all emotional beings, whose preferences with those experiences seem to differ fundamentally. But we are also creative, plastic, changeable beings, too. We can learn to better dance together. Couples who have adjusted to one another in this fundamental way can find a continuous, subtle joy in talking with and sharing life with each other.