July 26, 2012 by Shawn Smith
In Part One of this two-parter, I offered a few common reasons that men stop talking in relationships. Then, being a man, I ran out of things to say. I’m back now with some thoughts on how to tackle this problem as a team.
But first, here’s a short quiz for women to see how well you understand us men. For each of these questions, see if you can figure out how an average guy might respond:
1) A man becomes frustrated because he and his wife or girlfriend are repeating the same argument they had last week. Does he:
A) Suggest that they consult with a therapist in order to resolve this problem before it becomes a destructive pattern.
B) Try his hand at identifying the underlying feelings on each side of the dispute so that they can resolve the heart of the matter.
C) Cut bait and hit the Xbox before he paints himself into a corner.
2) A man is experiencing a sudden rush of affection for his wife or girlfriend. Does he:
A) Stop what he’s doing, take her by the hand, and profess his feelings.
B) Whisper sweet nothings without making too much commotion about it.
C) Think to himself, “I’m pretty sure she knows how I feel.”
3) It’s late at night, and both are in bed. The woman says, “Can we talk?” Does he:
A) Say, “I was hoping we could, but I was afraid to ask.”
B) Admit that the question makes him anxious because he wonders how long the conversation will last, and he worries that she will ultimately express anger or disappointment toward him.
C) You know what’s great about being a man? Not only can we fall asleep instantaneously, we can do it preemptively.
Some men are able to consistently respond with As and Bs, but I suspect the Cs are more common. In fact, I know that some men use silence as a tool for all occasions, and that leaves their partners trying to guess what he is thinking and feeling. As one woman told me, “[men] can be happy and silent, angry and silent, sad and silent, and I have a difficult time determining the emotion.”
Although male silence can seem cruel, I believe that in most cases silence is a form of problem-solving behavior. Seems crazy, right? How can a person solve a problem by not talking? Let’s look at how they might solve the problems that I described in Part One:
1) “Men aren’t supposed to talk.” If a man has been trained (as many of us have been) that conversations about relationships or feelings are effeminate, then silence solves the problem of being perceived as less-than-masculine. You might not like us if we’re not masculine, we might not like ourselves, and we may not know how to act any other way. Silence solves the problem of feeling like we might lose our masculinity.
2) We feel outmatched or that we cannot win. Feeling defeated is obviously unpleasant, and it can damage the relationship by decreasing trust. Silence can serve as a last-ditch effort to protect ourselves and the relationship from a sense of defeat and resignation.
3) We’re silent because we’re angry. Manhood has its conundrums. We are taught to treat women with respect (the good men are taught that, anyway), and yet we are expected to communicate even when we are so angry that we don’t feel capable of communicating respectfully. Silence helps us keep our manners. It prevents us from saying something regrettable, it prevents us from mistreating you, and it keeps us from causing greater damage to the relationship.
4) Arguing with you is painful for us. As I mentioned in the earlier post, you women sometimes fail to understand how important you are to us men, or how deeply your moods affect us. When you are unhappy, we are unhappy. Silence can be a way to avoid experiencing the pain that your unhappiness or disappointment can bring.
5) Our history is driving us. Sometimes the problem we’re solving is very old and outdated. In the previous post, silence was Andy’s attempt to solve a problem that no longer existed. No matter your gender, it can be quite difficult to recognize when history is driving behavior. It’s equally challenging to find new ways to respond to old history. (My current book has an entire section about human minds working on outdated problems, and what to do about it.)
I am not suggesting that silence is an ideal solution to most problems, but it often must be counted as a means of at least trying to make things better. Unfortunately it often has the opposite effect.
Perhaps the most damaging outcome to silence is that, by it’s very nature, silence leaves the recipient guessing. And when a human mind is left to fill in the blanks, rarely will it paint a rosy picture. Viewing silence as problem-solving behavior, rather than a personal attack, helps to soothe the sting.
Before going any further, I must acknowledge the fact silence is not always problem-solving behavior. Some people use silence to punish or manipulate. That is the reflection of a character problem, and relationships can’t be fixed when character is damaged. But in my experience, damaged characters — the type of people who routinely manipulate, use, or mistreat the people in their lives — are the minority.
More likely, silence from a man is an indication that the two of you have fallen into a destructive pattern, and he has run out of other options for repairing it. The best time to identify and describe a problematic pattern is when the two of you are not in the midst of it – and the worst time is when you are engulfed by it. In other words, don’t wait until the problem appears before you try to talk about it. Be strategic, and be a team.
Here are is one way to approach such a pattern:
1) Define the problem
Assuming he recognizes that there is a problem, and assuming that is invested in correcting it, the two of you might pick a time to discuss these questions: What problem is he attempting to solve by going silent? What problem are you trying to solve by getting him to talk? How does your behavior affect him, and vice-versa?
Your strategy should include an escape plan in the event that the pattern emerges when you attempt to talk about it. You might simply agree to take a break and come back to the discussion after an agreed-upon cool-down period. You might also consider alternate communication methods. For example, it might be easier for him to email his thoughts about his silence to you. Any constructive starting point will do.
2) Focus on the pattern, not the person
Nearly every couple I’ve worked with has fallen into the trap of believing something like this:
YOUR behavior is the problem with our relationship. Everything would improve if YOU would change.
Because we are on the receiving end of other people’s actions, it is natural to notice their behavior before we notice our own. Unfortunately, couples who can’t see past that way of thinking about their relationship have a poor prognosis. The more they try to change each other, the more entrenched their patterns become. That’s what happened to Meg and Andy in the previous post. He retreated; she pursued. The more they practiced the pattern, the more efficient they were at repeating it.
People frequently resist examining their own contribution to a destructive pattern because doing so feels like capitulation or an admission of guilt. Why should I change when HE is the one who shuts down every time I try to talk?
I humbly suggest that is the wrong way to look at it. Most couples would take a team approach to any other problem, be it a leaky roof, an illness, or a zombie apocalypse. No one with a modicum of survival instinct would say, “those zombies at the door are YOUR problem, jackass.”
If teamwork is good enough for fighting zombies, it’s good enough for communication problems. The pride and righteousness that prevent teamwork are often a mask for feelings fear and vulnerability. It’s a very bumpy ride when those emotions are in the driver’s seat.
3) Interrupt the pattern as early as possible
Habits are easiest to change when we learn to interrupt them as early as possible. For example, people who compulsively overeat improve their chances of resisting the habit when they physically separate themselves from temptation. When that plate of hors d’oeuvres passes under their nose, the best response might be to step outside before eating one and decide how to respond to the challenge.
Awareness and insight into our own behavior is difficult to develop, and so it is easy to fall into old patterns before we realize what’s happening. It takes practice, but couples can learn to take a break at the first sign of trouble, before they find themselves lost down that old, painful road.
The “safe word” is a technique that works well for many couples. As soon as either partner senses that they are beginning to fall into an old pattern, he or she says a mutually agreed upon word like “aluminum” or “green bean” which means “let’s take a break.” (Or you could just say “let’s take a break.”)
In order to use that technique, both partners should agree beforehand that they will immediately stop talking and go to separate corners, where they can each assess their thoughts and feelings. They also agree to resume the conversation after an agreed upon period of time so that the safe word doesn’t become one more avoidance mechanism. Many couples also find it helpful to do some writing during the break to organize their thoughts and reduce the influence of destructive emotions.
4) Be patient and willing to practice
When a couple returns to the conversation after having interrupted the pattern, there are usually two things to discuss: the issue that caused the discord and, more importantly, the emotion that was triggered. For Meg and Andy, it might look like this:
1) The issue: the dog ate the bread. Annoying, but trivial.
2) The emotions: Meg felt hurt and fearful because the incident reminded her of her concern that they are increasingly unable to communicate, and that led her to question the strength of the marriage. Andy felt ashamed and fearful because he also noticed their inability to communicate about small things and felt ineffective at calming her fears.
Ironically, their shared fear about losing each other was leading each to behave in a way that drove a wedge between them. The act of naming and accepting each other’s experience often relieves a great deal of pressure.
That sort of efficiency takes practice, and it often helps to enlist the help of a professional. In my experience, patterns reassert themselves repeatedly as the couple comes back together to discuss the matter. If Meg and Andy were to attempt this approach, I would fully expect Andy to feel overcome at some point with a desire to retreat and fall silent, and for Meg to feel compelled to fall into her old pattern of pursuit. The trick is not in preventing the urges, but acknowledging them and preventing them from taking over.