The Emotionally Polarized Couple
Like many couples, Megan and Chris love each other, but they each admit to having communication problems. They recently had a second child and although they are overjoyed with their growing family, they are both handling the stress that accompanies it very differently.
Megan describes feeling overwhelmed by taking care of two small children and all of the household responsibilities. She finds that she is increasingly irritable, she cries more easily than before, and often feels like she is failing to meet the growing demands of her family. Megan is hurt and angry that Chris is more distant than he used to be, but every time she asks him what’s wrong, he insists that everything is fine.
Chris is frustrated that Megan is easily irritated since the birth of their second child and he doesn’t understand why she’s so weepy all of the time. He tries to say as little as possible because he doesn’t know what will “set her off” and make her start crying. When they try to talk, Chris offers suggestions to help Megan, but she only gets madder. He doesn’t want to make things worse, so he stays quiet.
Chris and Megan are experiencing the stress that accompanies having a newborn, but the same breakdown in communication frequently emerges in couples, regardless of the stressor. Many men don’t know what to do with a woman’s heightened emotional response and they fear that if they “feed into” her emotions by offering her reassurance or validation, her emotional response will escalate. Men often mistakenly believe that if they jump in and fix the problem, if they point out the ways in which her feelings are illogical or irrational, or if they leave their partner alone, she will feel better. However, this approach has the opposite effect. She is looking to her partner to listen and to validate her feelings. She sees his suggestions as an insult; a clear indication that he believes she is incapable of handling things herself. She views his opinions of how she’s conducting herself as judgment and criticism. And finally, she views his distance as a rejection of her. All of these lead her to have an even larger emotional response and thus, perpetuate the polarization.
There are some basic differences between the sexes when it comes to communicating. Generally speaking, men tend to turn inward when facing a challenging situation or when going through a difficult time. After he has figured out how to solve his problem or he has moved past his hardship, a man is more likely to discuss his experience. His partner may take this pattern to mean that he doesn’t feel close enough to her to want to confide in her. Sharing and confiding in her is, to her, the ultimate way of achieving closeness. She feels hurt or angry, believing there is a disconnection between them.
Women, on the other hand, tend to have a need to talk about things as they are happening. As she is going through a difficult time, she finds comfort in discussing her thoughts and feelings with her partner. This makes her feel more connected to her partner and therefore, less alone in facing her challenge. For her partner, he may think that she is looking for advice, needs help solving the problem, or if she is emotional, that perhaps she is “falling apart” and things will only get worse.
So, what can be done to bring this polarized couple closer to each other? It is important that both parties are clear about their needs. We tend to have a romanticized notion that our partner can read our minds and can anticipate our needs. After all, this is how true love is portrayed in literature and films. But, this assumption sets both partners up for frustration and disappointment. For example, Megan might say, “I’m really struggling here. I need your reassurance that we are all right and that I am a good mother.” Once Chris knows that Megan is looking for validation, he can give that to her, making her feel closer to him for meeting her needs and leaving him to feel satisfied that he was able to give her what she wanted. For Chris, he might let Megan know that having a baby has changed his life too and that he needs a little time to himself to decompress and adjust to the change, explaining that it is not a rejection of her or their family. Knowing this, she can support his need for some time to himself without taking it as rejection.
Supporting your partner’s feelings by listening without criticism, even if your partner’s feelings seem illogical to you, is a central characteristic in happy relationships. It does not mean you have to agree, but the simple practice of acknowledging that your partner has certain emotions around their experience goes a long way toward building and maintaining closeness. We tend to experience loving feelings and a deeper sense of attachment for those we believe understand us.
Published in Hitched Magazine, January 27, 2017.