Recently I’ve seen a few men in my practice who—although wincing, have admitted they are afraid of their partners. Not physically, but potential conflict. These are “normal men,” some of whom run their own companies, have been hired to consult with “giants” in various industries–and could more than likely kick my ass in other circumstances. Just to be clear, these aren’t hen-pecked, pussy-whipped, or milk-toast guys, but normal guys who’ve experienced negative reactions from their partners over relatively simple interactions, and have come to anticipate it with any interaction.
For example, a man I was working with recently told me his wife asked him: How does this scarf look? In Reality, she may’ve just been asking for feedback, but for him the question contained an inherently right or wrong answer. If he told her the scarf looked terrible, he risked hurting her feelings, if he said it looked good, she might’ve asked him to explain why. In his mind, either was a trap and would’ve lead to a potential fight. Yet not saying anything would also invite trouble. So to avoid all this, he gave her a neutral answer. “Fine.”
Unclear about his opinion, she asked more directly, “Does it?
“Yes, it does.” But he still wasn’t convincing.
By now her voice had a challenging tone. “It really does?”
She might’ve felt his uncertainty reflected how he felt about her, and changed her tone. But he took it as questioning his honesty not how he felt about her. Certainly not his opinion about the scarf, based on past interactions.
“Yes.” He tried to emphasize it this time. “And that sweater is great.”
“I wore it last week. Not that you’d notice.” Obviously, the jab was intended to point out he doesn’t pay attention to her. But this only reinforced his feeling that he couldn’t say anything she’d like, and had once again disappointed her. As a result he felt hopeless and alienated, and shut down.
When I asked what was going on for him, he told me he was wondering how she was feeling about the scarf. In the past he’s said he liked things of hers that she didn’t, and felt like she got mad at him as a result. As he related these things, I sensed he felt he could only consider such matters in terms of damage control. “Why do you think she got mad?”
“Cause it makes her feel like I don’t really care how she looks.”
“Well, that makes sense.”
He explained that when she asked him about the scarf the second time, he sensed by her tone she wanted a real answer. But assuming he would disappoint her, he threw in a compliment about her sweater to placate her—only to be busted for not noticing she wore it the previous week.
“You really hadn’t noticed the sweater the week before?”
“I might’ve, but I wasn’t wearing my contacts.”
I looked confused.
“She’s gotten mad at me before for not wearing them and I was afraid this would happen again.”
“Do you really think she would have gotten mad because you didn’t happen to have your contacts in?”
“I’m not really sure. Probably. I’m always feeling like I’m doing something wrong.” I could hear the acquiescence in is voice.
“What if you tried thinking out loud as you interacted with her.”
“How do you mean?”
“Thinking out loud is just how it sounds. Let’s say your spouse says or asks something that you feel that has potential for conflict. Rather than avoid the conflict, walk her through the thoughts and feelings you have out loud as you answer. Maybe you say something like, ‘I think the scarf looks fine, but I’m afraid that if you don’t think so you’ll get mad.’ Or, ‘The truth is that I don’t actually have my contacts in, but I’m thinking if I tell you that, you might be mad. Is that true?’ Instead of assuming how she will react, check it out against what she is really experiencing in the situation. She might say something like, ‘No, I only want to know whether the scarf looks good or not. But I would be more likely to believe you if you could actually see it.’ And you could say, ‘It’s just something I worry about. Let me put them in and then I give you an honest answer.’”
“She often says she feels like I don’t have her back.”
“There you go! Maybe she feels like she can’t depend on you. But clarify this, instead acting on it. The assumption keeps you feeling like you’re always doing something wrong. You can dispel these assumptions by letting her into your process of thinking. This also gives you the opportunity to differentiate your assumptions from reality. Rather than jumping all over you, she can explain, ‘I really need to be able to depend on you when I ask you if something looks good. But if you can’t even see, I don’t feel like I can. And this makes me mad more than anything else.’ Having this clarified you can feel more assured telling her how the scarf looks, or that you don’t have your contacts in. The worst that can come of this is that you’ll have to admit that you were running a story you didn’t bother to check out first.”
“Stories are what we tell ourselves about another’s intentions. ‘She’s gonna to think I don’t find her attractive or care about her if I don’t have an opinion about the scarf, because she doesn’t think I’m a good husband.’ If we are acting in ways that reflect not being a good husband—or whatever it is, rather than simply fixing this, we sometimes enlist others to do it for us. They think we’re not a good spouse. It allows us to avoid admitting we’re not a good spouse or genuinely take the responsibility to change this; because it isn’t necessarily on us to initiate the change, but the result of another’s desire for us to change.” I paused to let this sink in. When he nodded, I added, “Sometimes this type of dynamic feels familiar. It may’ve been a role we played in our family. Not being a good son was a way we could get attention. For example if we pretended to be helpless to be a good son, we could elicit our parents’ compassion, or negate their own helplessness so they could feel good about themselves as parents. Often times we reenact these stories with those we’re in relationship with to help us work them out. But most times we do this unconsciously—unaware ourselves that we are doing it, and confusing those were in relationship with. Rather than working them out, we work them further in. In adult relationships, undermining ourselves for the assumed benefit of our partners causes us to be inauthentic and potentially resentful, especially when others do not recognize what we are actually doing. Sometimes repeating this dynamic can serve as a distancing tactic—You don’t think I’m a good husband, why should I even try to be one?
In order to actually work these stories out, we first need to be aware of them, then be willing to make them known so that our reenactments can actually have a productive purpose. This can be accomplished by enlisting our spouse to help us. Having an opinion on a scarf isn’t a realistic basis for determining whether one is a good husband. But if we assume that it is when we don’t genuinely believe it is, it will throw our spouse off by engaging them in a dynamic they don’t necessarily have a part in. In reality, she may be perfectly fine that you don’t have an opinion on a scarf. But if she’s being treated like she shouldn’t be fine, then she just might not be. This only reinforces the not-feeling-good-enough-dynamic. However, making the running-story known by thinking through it out loud, actually gives our spouse insight into the underlying dynamic, so they can clarify it for us.
To start, lay some groundwork. Let the person know that you are trying to be more aware of the assumptions, or stories you play within the relationship, and that you would like help resolving these. Also be sure to add that you want to improve the relationship—because, if you’re going to assume anything, assume your stories are probably affecting it. Explain what these assumptions are, give examples of what they look like, how you think you get triggered, and how you typically respond. Describe the feeling you get when you do this, and how you feel about yourself. If you can, relate it to dynamics growing up in your family. Prepare them that to resolve this you will be checking things out by thinking aloud and asking questions to check out their answers against your assumptions. Assure them that you recognize these tendencies as your own, rather than solely the result of the relationship. Otherwise, the other person may become defensive and you may wind up reacting to and creating stories around this. Discuss that as you do this you would like to set aside time after these interactions to recognize the patterns your stories have been creating, and to confirm the reality apart from the assumption or story. In doing this we not only come to better understand ourselves, but to be better understood by others. If done in an open, non-defensive way, it may just inspire the other to think out loud as well, creating a mutually collaborative communication.
But as I tell anyone I’m working with, whether a couple, or an individual, “All this is easy to say from where I’m sitting.” And it is. I’m not up against triggered patterns, or the other person’s tendency to personalize. The point of this isn’t a quick fix, but an on going means of developing accurate and more productive communication. This all sounds good going in, but could just as easily get derailed by preexisting communication dynamics. Even if one goes in with all the best intentions, he or she may not be met with the same enthusiasm and wind up even more at odds. This can be especially frustrating if the one introducing the change is trying to improve the relationship. The other may get defensive, paranoid, or annoyed. They may be too volatile to give any of this a fair shot. If this is the case, it may make sense to look into couples counseling for help establishing better communication.