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.
Every so often patterns seem to emerge from the diverse clients I see. Here’s what I’m noticing now:
1. Couples in my area are coming to counseling at higher distress levels. In our initial conversations, they easily say their problems go back years, not months. This often translates into one or both of the couple completely emotionally “finished,” and only coming to counseling out of a sense of obligation or the expectation that the divorce process in their county will expect some kind of counseling to occur.
Very often, men in these marriages are slow to agree to get counseling help. They may view the marriage differently, or be reluctant to reach out for support. When the wife begins to seriously talk about separation, the husband wakes up and says he’s ready and will often make the initial phone calls to therapists.
2. Couples have less confidence in counseling. Perhaps it comes from more choices for treatment (online, email therapy, coaching, prescription drugs) or a growing reluctance on many people’s part to give permanent change the time and energy it requires. I wonder if more people are willing to try therapy but quit when it gets hard to schedule or invest in, or if more people are choosing therapists by price alone. Many people will start therapy with less experienced counselors, but stop attending when the process gets bogged down.
Each of these issues makes helping couples heal and grow a true challenge. Therapy works best when there is less damage to heal, and works best when everyone is ready to invest themselves. Sometimes these factors don’t happen between partners at the same time.
Getting the Love You Want : A Guide for Couples by Harville Hendrix
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Hendrix and I have preaching and church ministry as a young adult in common. I love this about him. What I don’t love is that his psychology model is born of psychoanalytic and Freudian models. He believes that we marry unconsciously to heal the wounds that our early lives have inflicted upon us, and that good marriages heal those wounds.
I believe instead that we marry others who feel instinctively familiar, like family, to us. In both good and bad ways. And that is our own work, our individual, relational and spiritual work, to heal our wounds. I think that is too heavy a load to lay on one relationship, particularly your spouse!
I am indebted to him, however, for teaching us/me the Imago Dialogue model. I use it almost daily in my practice to slow partners down, get them to listen to each other without reflexive defense, problem solving or arguing points of fact. It’s the best thing about his work that I value.
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