Five Reasons Men Go Silent, and What to Do About It (Part One)

why men don't talkA lot of men do it. They do it after dinner; they do it in the car. They do it in bed, and they even do it when you’re discussing your mother.

I’m talking about going silent, of course. It seems that men are most prone to it during a conflict: she wants to talk and he has checked out. I should of course point out that women sometimes retreat when men want to talk, but let’s be honest: unwillingness to communicate is mainly a male behavior. It causes no pride to admit that I struggle with it myself. You would think a psychologist would know better.

Going silent is the kind of relationship behavior that can feed on itself until it becomes a pattern that seems to engulf the couple. The natural response from many women is to force a conversation when her man goes silent. But that can make it even more difficult for him to speak. Which leads to more forcefulness. Which leads to… Well, you get the picture. That’s precisely the type of pattern that Meg and Andy fell into. Theirs is a typical story.

After five years of marriage, Meg was beginning to wonder if their relationship was doomed. She loved Andy, but he had changed. He was generally sweet to Meg, until they got into an argument. That’s when he seemed to completely withdraw from her.

One of their arguments concerned the dog. When no one was home, the pup stole a loaf of bread that Andy had left sitting too close to the edge of the counter. Meg came home to discover a broken plate, crumbs on the floor, and a shame-­faced dog hiding in the bedroom.

Meg was angry, partly because of Andy’s absent-mindedness, but mainly because they had lost their ability to communicate about little things like this. She worried that this rather trivial incident would lead to another difficult conversation, and she was angry that Andy had put them in this position.

Sure enough, Andy sensed Meg’s anger when he arrived home. Rather than greeting her as usual, he avoided her. When she eventually confronted him about the bread, he withdrew completely. She tried to talk to him but, as usual, that only seemed to make things worse.

Andy’s behavior left Meg feeling isolated and anxious. She was beginning to feel that she had been shortchanged in her marriage. Where had her kind and caring husband gone?

There was a time when Meg and Andy would have laughed at the stolen bread incident. Now trivial incidents brought misery, and that was the most frustrating thing for each of them. They didn’t understand how their relationship had become so embittered.

Retreat and Pursuit

This pattern of retreat and pursuit is one of the more common that I see in couples. The more she tries to get him to talk, the more he retreats. It feels awful to both of them, and it gains strength with repetition. With each new iteration, the emotions become more intense and more difficult to resist.

The retreat-pursuit pattern is particularly anxiety provoking for the person on the receiving end of the silence. It can leave her feeling abandoned and discouraged. Meg may have been thinking, If Andy and I cannot communicate about a loaf of bread, how will we ever handle more difficult problems? What is the point of our relationship?

It is unpleasant for the man, too. Most men in Andy’s position realize that their silence only makes things worse. So why do we do it? Here are some of the more common reasons that men have reported to me during my work with couples:

1) Men Ain’t Supposed to Talk

Many men are at a disadvantage in discussions about relationship dynamics because, in general, women are simply better trained at it. Throughout their development, girls tend to talk about relationships more than boys.

To put men at an even greater disadvantage, many of us have been taught that it is effeminate to discuss… that stuff. As boys, we faced ridicule if ever we ventured too far toward feminine discourse. Those experiences stay with us, and it can be remarkably difficult to break those ingrained gender rules.

2) We Feel We Cannot Win

A surprising number of men have admitted to me that they feel outmatched during arguments with their wives or girlfriends. They have said things like this:

  • “I’m not as quick on my feet as she is.”
  • “She comes prepared with her arguments and I don’t.”
  • “She seems to remember everything I’ve ever said or done. My mind doesn’t work like that.”
  • “She brings up old arguments that I thought we had settled. I don’t know how to defend against that.”

These men tend to believe that anything they say will get them into trouble. Talking makes them feel vulnerable to criticism or shame, and so they do what seems like the only sensible thing: they stop talking.

3) We Get Angry

It’s true, sometimes we clam up because we’re angry. For many men, anger is the default response when we feel wounded, criticized, disrespected, isolated, or even sad. It often takes time for us to realize what has prompted our anger. Until we’re ready to discuss it, silence may seem like the safest option.

4) It Pains Us to Argue With You

I don’t think many women realize just how important you are to us men. (The good men, anyway.) An unhappy woman is a painful experience for many men. When the same old arguments show up repeatedly, we start to feel powerless to keep you happy. That’s when some men give up and go silent, because passively making things worse is more tolerable than speaking and actively making things worse.

5) History Drives Us

Generalizations about men are fine and useful up to a point, but individual factors are more important. Men are just as vulnerable as women to their own unique histories.

Meg and Andy’s story is from my recent book, The User’s Guide to the Human Mind. It comes from a chapter on the ways in which the mind uses past experiences to drive current behavior.

The book reveals that Andy’s silence was driven by experiences much earlier in his life, when he learned that conflict was dangerous. His safest response in those younger days was to retreat from conflict. The strategy worked well back then, but it no longer serves him. Rather than keeping him safe, as they used to, they are actually making things worse. Behaviors that once kept us safe are some of the most difficult behaviors to change. It takes special effort to understand and transcend history.

Next: Breaking the Pattern

This is getting long-winded, and I have heard that men should not talk so much. So I will continue this post later with some thoughts on how to break problematic routines like the retreat-and-pursuit pattern.

In the meantime, I’d like your thoughts on the biggest communication problems between men and women. If you have a few moments, please consider taking this short survey for my next book (more info after the jump). I’d like to hear from both men and women. In return for your opinion, I’ll discuss the survey results here before the book comes out. Don’t hold back! I can handle the truth.

Part Two Here.

-IS

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17 Responses to Five Reasons Men Go Silent, and What to Do About It (Part One)

  1. Kirk says:

    I’m sorry but I just can’t talk about this.

  2. z says:

    This describes the dynamics of my parents’ marriage perfectly. Their relationship had become so unbalanced to a point that she assumed the roles of both parents and he was just a bystander who happened to be living under the same roof…

  3. Dori says:

    Know this problem very well as a woman. Nice to understand it better, thank you for the article.
    I am looking forward to part 2.

  4. R says:

    I think another reason is men tend to hear problems and immediately focus on fixing them. What’s the point of talking about something you have no intention of resolving? It’s hard to sometimes know when they want a solution versus when they just want to talk about feelings.

  5. Stephanie says:

    This might seem like a niggling point, but was this a loaf of Wonder Bread or did Meg bake it herself? C’mon. Get your writer’s Magic 8 Ball out and decide.

    In my marriage, both of us go quiet. In fact, I am probably worse than my husband. The reason I ask about the bread though is because a very similar situation happened at our house and even though our coping mechanisms are what you describe, our scenario ended differently. You see, I hate baking. The cost/benefit analysis of baking just doesn’t make it worth it. It takes way longer to bake something than it does to eat it. My husband does like to bake though, so our division of labor in the kitchen is that I cook and do dishes. He can heat a frozen pizza every once in a while and he bakes (the tremendous mess this entails is another issue). One day, an organization I volunteer with was holding a bake sale and I signed up to bring cupcakes. My husband offered to make them for me. Incredibly sweet! So, after baking two dozen cupcakes and even running off to the store once to get a forgotten ingredient, he finished them off with the last touches of icing and then asked me to watch them so the cat didn’t get into them. “Sure, no problem.” Instead of staying in the kitchen to guard the cupcakes, I got distracted and turned my back on them. My husband came back into the kitchen to discover, sure enough, the cat sampling the frosting on every single cupcake. He was so pissed. Of course he would be. I could empathize with his anger, I recognized I deserved it, and I just felt like crap because it looked like I didn’t appreciate his generosity. So, I didn’t retreat. I just sucked it up and took what was coming to me. I told him that I was very sorry and I completely understood why he was angry and I would be angry too. I did try to make him understand that I felt regret and that I did appreciate what he had done for me, even though by way of my actions, it could seem like I didn’t.

    I have been thinking about what was different in that situation. Why didn’t I just go quiet like I usually do, and I think it was because I could empathize and because I agreed that it was my fault. When I feel attacked at other times, I don’t think it’s fair or necessarily my fault and when that happens, it is very difficult to be empathetic to his perspective. Maybe that is going to be discussed in Part II?

    Also, another question. Is this the male companion article about getting your man to help out around the house, or did you conceive of them separately?

    • Shawn says:

      Hi Stephanie, think of it as a projective personality assessment. The bread came from wherever you want it to. :) Strange that you had such a similar experience. In answer to your last question, these things are on my mind lately because I’m working on the next book about understanding the way men think.

  6. Dori says:

    What would interest me is also how to apologize in such situations. I just recently got quite angry being ignored obviously by a man. And just fell into this pattern. I was angry on afterwards that I got so annoying. So I apologized and I hope it is ok now. How is it possible to give the other back the feeling that I do not want to put pressure and pursue but I will try in the future to not do again? How can you get back the trust not making the other afraid of it happening again? Or probably it was my fear of being ignored again. How can I get back the trust?

    • Stephanie says:

      Dori, a book you might be interested in reading is “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love” http://www.amazon.com/Hold-Me-Tight-Conversations-Lifetime/dp/031611300X

      If you can suffer through the cutsey names she gives to the problems couples have, it is actually a decent book about how adults go about communicating their need for their attachment with their partner. Your partner has that same need, so don’t worry, he is just going about it differently than you are. You’ll get to learn about the different patterns and the book provides sample conversations between couples trying to understand each other. It probably works best if your guy is interest in reading the book too, or at least willing to listen to parts that you think are most relevant to your relationship.

      Good luck. :)

  7. w.w.wygart says:

    Here are a few items [semi humorous] that your guys missed to add to your laundry list.

    * A better expression than, “We feel we cannot win,” might be, “We have a deep sense of futility in the process.” Ever heard the expression in any of its many variations, “There is no use arguing with a woman….”

    * You wind up sucking it up and holding the bag for the whole issue in the end anyway, so why bother to put yourself through the torment?

    * The whole issue tends to be framed around the notion that we [the man] is wrong – if our position is invalidated before you open our mouth, why open your mouth?

    * The whole issue tends to be framed around what needs to change with the us [the man], not us [the couple]. [see above]

    * Women often talk to you like one of her children – she forgets you are an adult, or just can’t switch modes appropriately.

    * Women can have an unimpeachable sense of rightness, [comes from being a mother??] it can be almost impossible to shift without conversation devolving into argument. Consequently the emotional lead up to ‘talking’ for a man can be one of futility. [see above]

    * Men [when they talk] generally talk about things to settle issues, Women talk to validate their internal experience, “settling” an issue to her means having her internal experience validated. A woman will not let you invalidate her internal experience without a fight.

    * Women are good at tolerating contradictory states, Men tend to want to ‘resolve’ [eliminate] contradictory states which does NOT go over well with the woman because it invalidates her internal experience. [see above]

    * Women come armed to a discussion with a laundry list of issues, offenses & etc. to support her position, but not necessarily good logic. [see above]

    * And of course, we men ARE often wrong, or the offender in any particular situation. Shit doesn’t taste any better even when its your own, so why open your mouth for it?

    ~W^3

  8. Oliver says:

    I finally discovered my husband was ‘punishing me’ by not talking on a very regular basis–every time he thought I was annoyed with him. I always wondered why he had so much to say to everyone else!
    Hasn’t been using that trick since I called him on it…This had been going on for 34 years of marriage!

  9. Oliver says:

    Oh, and of course, every time I am upset it is about him!!! :)

  10. Interesting discussion. Another excellent book on the subject: You Just Don’t Understand by Deborah Tannen, a linguistic anthropologist. Kind of the egghead’s version of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (which, BTW, is one of the FEW self-help books that I ever had any male in my practice actually like (and read)…so I can’t dismiss it entirely!

  11. Anonymous says:

    You betcha

  12. Pingback: Five Reasons Men Go Silent, and What to Do About It (Part Two) | Iron Shrink

  13. H says:

    I have a good friend who is going through this…but it’s the opposite. SHE withdraws when HE wants to talk, and HE pursues…it’s such a classic pattern but the genders are reversed!

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