Shame is possibly the most difficult emotion we have to deal with. And shame is behind many of the difficulties that arise in every marriage and intimate partnership.
Many women fall into what psychologists call the “pursuers” in the relationship, while most men are the “distancers”. Women are often the ones who want to talk about the relationship and nag their husbands to have more conversations and shared activities.
Men in return often withdraw into their own world, and seemingly prefer to watch TV or sit by the computer rather than discuss what is going on between the two partners.
In the beginning, the two partners may have been attracted to just this dynamic: he wanted to be with someone who is social and initiates conversation. And she loved that he was so mellow and non-intrusive.
But all too often what used to feel like a perfect match becomes a dynamic from hell, when one does nothing but pursue and the other does all the distancing.
Mental help professionals Patricia Love and Steven Stosny give us the reasons why things spiral out of control in their highly readable book “How to Improve your Marriage without Talking about it“.
Women are born to look for connection. They are the ones who were designed to raise children and to hold the families together. When women seek connection and can’t get it they start to feel anxious and feel that they have to do something about it.
Men by contrast are wired to be hypersensitive to stimulus and arousal. They were the ones who protected the tribe from outside threats. They had to be vigilant at all times and be ready to fight and protect, or flee when things got dangerous. When men can’t fulfill their role as protectors and fighters they feel easily overwhelmed by shame and a sense of failure, and for them the safest thing to do in such a situation is to withdraw.
Which is what typically happens in a fight between spouses: The wife, afraid of losing the connection, is trying hard to make improvements in the relationship, which triggers a heightened sense of failure and shame in the husband. Because he has learned to hide this shame early on, his wife has no clue what she triggers in him. As he is trying to ward off his shame by distancing and withdrawal, he withholds that vital sense of connection from her and forces her further into isolation and anxiety.
This, in return, causes more shame within the husband. On an unconscious level he feels that he has failed to protect his wife from being afraid. So he gets angry at her for feeling fear, and at himself for having failed her.
The authors point out that men, because of their sensitivity to hyperarousal, often have a greater need for alone time. Women tend to interpret this as a lack of interest or even a loss of their love. Shame reinforces this dynamic. The root meaning of the word shame is “to cover or conceal”. When we feel ashamed, all we want to do is hide and get away from the embarrassing situation.
“For the average male, relationships are not always a source of comfort”, write Love and Stosny. “A man’s greatest pain comes from shame, due to the inadequacy he feels in relationships. Talking about the relationship, which is guaranteed to remind him of his inadequacy, is the last method he would use for comfort.”
The solution how to overcome this impasse is to learn to put yourself into the shoes of your partner. To understand that fear and shame lie at the heart of the conflict rather than rejection and abandonment. Empathy provides connection. Without being connected, it is pointless to try and discuss a disagreement or a previous fight. “Any attempt to talk about it while you are disconnected will make it worse.”
So the first order of things is to establish a connection, which for many men (and some women) does not mean talking. Instead, rub his back for a little while, share a cup of coffee or the morning paper, and feel what state of mind he might be in. He may feel tense about something that happened at work, or distracted because he is trying to fix something in the house. Men often de-stress by working with their hands: mow the lawn or fix a broken lamp. In this moment of trying to establish a connection without words, is is all about him and trying to understand where he is at. Once you do feel connected, you can address your own thoughts in a non-shaming, non-accusatory way.
The authors even give a remedy how to get started: “You have a much better chance of connecting by activating his protectiveness, and you have the best chance of doing that by exposing your own shame.” Which is of course, very hard to do. Admitting to your own sense of failure is not easy, male or female. But it is the surest way to soften things up to avoid more clashing.
The gist of the matter is to be in a relaxed and open state of mind yourself when you want to address a relationship issue. When you’re tense and stressed, there is no point in bringing it up.
According to the book, connection is possible at any time. “You can feel connected whenever you want, simply by choosing to feel connected.”
As always, it’s all a matter of perspective.
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Last reviewed: 5 Jul 2013