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.
Several times this week I have found myself talking to new couple clients about their relationships, and how hurt has caused them to feel withdrawn from their partners. Sometimes this distance has lasted for years, the human need for support, connection and understanding no longer expected from their spouse.
One of the most important aspects of relationship repair is the willingness to risk being open to a partner who has been months or years at odds with our needs and hopes. Couple therapy at its best keeps both people focused on their individual efforts, while being confident, through actions and words in the therapy room and out, that the partner is doing the same hard work.
It can feel like being open to injury. Like you are just asking for your partner to hurt you again. Many people resist, and for every right reason! But repairing such pain means turning toward your partner and feeling what you feel, expressing your hurt and disappointment, asking for what you need again, and being willing to see if your openness can be met with a similar effort of apology, repair, and affection by your partner. That’s what a good couple therapist does every day with couples, with compassion, encouragement and patience. It’s not a free-for-all in therapy sessions. If it is, run in the other direction.
When deciding whether to go to couples therapy, this is one question you will need to answer: am I willing to be open again to this person, this one I once loved, and see what I feel, what they have to say, what they have experienced, and work together for new, common ground?