Ralph is in the living room reading the paper. Sylvia walks in and tells him he forgot to mail a bill they owed. He doesn’t look up or say anything. She exclaims, “why don’t you ever answer me?” He gets up from his chair, doesn’t look at her or speak, and then he leaves the room.
This is a common theme in many relationships. I have heard this story many times in my office as a couples therapist. Sue Johnson, PhD, author of Hold Me Tight, would call this a pursue/withdraw pattern. She would hypothesize that the man in this relationship, probably feels blamed, judged, and misunderstood, doesn’t know how to express this, so he gets angry and withdraws. The woman in this relationship probably feels so alone, not important, and desperate, that she keeps pursuing, reaching out, and reacts to everything he does. In Hold Me Tight, Dr Johnson talks about how couples can change this pattern of pursue/retreat into connection. She states that partners need to feel secure in their relationship. Their reactions are attempts at being heard and seen from their significant other. I believe that men have made a lot of progress in being able to change their part of the pattern and have learned to understand and appreciate that feeling secure and connected with their partner is important.
In times of disconnect we tend to get reactive and feel unsure and start to doubt the relationship. When we feel insecure we get agitated, get angry at our partner, or retreat. When I meet with couples in therapy sessions, I have seen men withdraw, get quiet, or project anger. When we process these reacti0ns, most men say that they feel shame, hurt or fear. It feels too risky or vulnerable to actually be in touch with these feelings when they are happening, let alone talk about them. The default setting is to get angry or retreat. Men have been reinforced through the media, culture, sports, in business, that to be a strong man means not to express vulnerable feelings. This is a sign of weakness.
What we do know is that vulnerability brings connection for couples. Brene Brown, PhD, a nationally known psychologist, author, and speaker, who has done research on shame and vulnerability, reports that when we are able to be vulnerable with our partners, then we feel better about our selves. The feelings of shame and fear subside when we can share them with our partner. The relationship gets closer. We don’t need to get defensive.
I have seen many men like Ralph learn to understand that they feel hurt when they are in that difficult situation. They can then accept the hurt, not think that they are being a whimp because they have a vulnerable feeling. These men are able to talk to their partner about this feeling rather than shutting down or escalating. When this conversation happens, their is a feeling of connection between the partners rather than distance or tension. That is what strengthens the relationship and builds trust and harmony with both partners.
When men can stay connected with their partner, and come out of isolation with their vulnerability, then they feel secure, whole, safe, and confident.