Girl, I know how frustrated you are. Your husband has shut down or checked out. The more you try to talk to him, the further into himself he retreats. You tell yourself that he doesn’t care and wonder how he can be so cold or callous. Trying to resolve issues feels impossible because you can’t manage to have a conversation without it leading to explosive anger or complete silence. I want to share with you what I’ve learned about men. Including my own husband. Men perceive complaints as criticism. We feel like we are merely sharing feelings, bringing up a legitimate issue/request but their perception is that we are pointing out their flaws. Most women are expressive and more verbal than men. Because we “share” our feelings more, we inadvertently complain more. We tell them the ways in which they are inadequate or not good enough. We compare them to someone else’s husband. We ask for them to know what we need and want through mindreading. After a while, they grow weary of hearing about how they have disappointed us, again. Their resentment begins to build. When we try to reach out, they growl. This in turn gives us something new to complain about, his growling. I understand that women are trying to simply express concerns and get needs met. The problem is that if we are not careful about how we start the conversation, our tone of voice or our timing, there is a very good chance he will feel attacked. Through centuries of evolutionary hardwiring, most men respond to being attacked with a counterattack. This may come in the form of counter-criticism, angry defensiveness or storming off. They have an intense physiological response which leads to the activation of the fight or flight response. Understandably, this makes them difficult to deal with at precisely the moment we are trying to communicate. Our desire for communication and closeness has been replaced with hurt and anger when they lash out at us. Many men have an inner Rambo you do not want to go to war with because he will fight to the death. During these intense fights, the relationship can become deeply wounded and it may take days or even weeks for you to recover. In his book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, researcher Dr. John Gottman explains that one characteristic he discovered common to marriages that ended in divorce was something he called “harsh start-up”. He also discovered that this was almost uniquely a female phenomenon. A harsh-start up is approaching your husband in a way that makes him feel attacked. If we know this behavior is highly correlated to divorce then we have to be much more aware of how we are being perceived. How do we do this?
- Ask your husband if you make him feel like an inadequate husband when you complain. Be curious and really listen with an open heart.
- You may have no idea how much you are actually complaining. Just because you think it, doesn’t mean you have to say it. Bite your tongue. Tell yourself that his affection for you and the health of the relationship is infinitely more important than whether or not he put the measuring cup back in the right spot. Decide to just let go of most of your complaints.
- If the complaint you have is going to lead to ongoing resentment or damage to the relationship, then by all means discuss it. But utilize what you learned about “harsh-start up”. Body language is very important. Soften your expression and voice. Slow down your speech. Do not use absolutes like “never” or “always”. Instead of telling him what’s wrong, ask him for what you want. It sounds like this, “I could really use more help putting kids to bed. I’m so tired I feel like I’m being impatient with them. Do you think you could help me with this?” He may not respond with enthusiasm, but he’ll help. If he doesn’t help, have him read Dear Clueless Husband.
- If the conversation starts to go sideways, take a break but don’t give up. If the two of you cannot seem to resolve it without hurting one another, seek the help of a professional marriage therapist.
- Create a rule for yourself using a 2:1 ratio. For every complaint, give him two acknowledgments. Not at the same time (which feels fake and forced) but as a general rule. Eventually your Goodwill Bank Account will be so flush that he will receive complaints without being defensive.