A lot of men do it. They do it after dinner; they do it in the car. They do it in bed, and they even do it when you’re discussing your mother.
I’m talking about going silent, of course. It seems that men are most prone to it during a conflict: she wants to talk and he has checked out. I should of course point out that women sometimes retreat when men want to talk. But let’s be honest: unwillingness to communicate is mainly a male behavior. It causes no pride to admit that I struggle with it myself. You would think a psychologist would know better.
Going silent is the kind of relationship behavior that can feed on itself until it becomes a pattern that seems to engulf the couple. The natural response from many women is to force a conversation when her man goes silent. But that can make it even more difficult for him to speak. Which leads to more forcefulness. Which leads to… Well, you get the picture. That’s precisely the type of pattern that Meg and Andy fell into. Theirs is a typical story.
After five years of marriage, Meg was beginning to wonder if their relationship was doomed. She loved Andy, but he had changed. He was generally sweet to Meg, until they got into an argument. That’s when he seemed to completely withdraw from her.
One of their arguments concerned the dog. When no one was home, the pup stole a loaf of bread that Andy had left sitting too close to the edge of the counter. Meg came home to discover a broken plate, crumbs on the floor, and a shame-­faced dog hiding in the bedroom.
Meg was angry, partly because of Andy’s absent-mindedness, but mainly because they had lost their ability to communicate about little things like this. She worried that this rather trivial incident would lead to another difficult conversation, and she was angry that Andy had put them in this position.
Sure enough, Andy sensed Meg’s anger when he arrived home. Rather than greeting her as usual, he avoided her. When she eventually confronted him about the bread, he withdrew completely. She tried to talk to him but, as usual, that only seemed to make things worse.
Andy’s behavior left Meg feeling isolated and anxious. She was beginning to feel that she had been shortchanged in her marriage. Where had her kind and caring husband gone?
There was a time when Meg and Andy would have laughed at the stolen bread incident. Now trivial incidents brought misery, and that was the most frustrating thing for each of them. They didn’t understand how their relationship had become so embittered.
Retreat and Pursuit
This pattern of retreat and pursuit is one of the more common that I see in couples. The more she pursues, the more he retreats. It feels awful to both of them, and it gains strength with repetition. With each new iteration, the emotions become more intense and more difficult to resist.
The retreat-pursuit pattern is particularly anxiety provoking for the person on the receiving end of the silence. It can leave her feeling abandoned and discouraged. Meg may have been thinking, If Andy and I cannot communicate about a loaf of bread, how will we ever handle more difficult problems? What is the point of our relationship?
It is unpleasant for the man, too. Most men in Andy’s position realize that their silence only makes things worse. So why do we do it? Here are some of the more common reasons that men have reported to me through the course of my work with couples:
1) Men Ain’t Supposed to Talk
This may be the most obvious reason for male silence. Many men are at a disadvantage in discussions about relationship dynamics because, in general, women are simply better trained at it. Throughout their development, girls tend to talk about relationships more than boys.
To put men at an even greater disadvantage, many of us have been taught that it is effeminate to discuss… that stuff. As boys, we faced ridicule if ever we ventured too far toward feminine discourse. Those experiences stay with us, and it can be remarkably difficult to break those ingrained gender rules.
2) We Feel Outmatched
A surprising number of men have admitted to me that they feel outmatched during arguments with their wives or girlfriends. They have said things like this:
- “I’m not as quick on my feet as she is.”
- “She comes prepared with her arguments and I don’t.”
- “She seems to remember everything I’ve ever said or done. My mind doesn’t work like that.”
- “She brings up old arguments that I thought we had settled. I don’t know how to defend against that.”
These men tend to believe that anything they say will get them into trouble. Talking makes them feel vulnerable to criticism or shame, and so they do the only sensible thing: stop talking.
3) We Get Angry
It’s true, sometimes we clam up because we’re angry. For many men, anger is the default response when we feel wounded, criticized, disrespected, isolated, or even sad. It often takes time for us to realize what has prompted our anger. Until we’re ready to discuss it, silence may seem like the safest option.
4) It Pains Us to Argue With You
I don’t think many women realize just how important you are to us men. (The good men, anyway.) An unhappy woman is a painful experience for many men. When the same old arguments show up repeatedly, we start to feel powerless about keeping you happy. That’s when some men give up and go silent. Passively making things worse is more tolerable than speaking and making things worse.
5) History Drives Us
Generalizations about men are fine and useful up to a point, but individual factors are more important. Men are just as vulnerable as women to their own unique histories.
Meg and Andy’s story is from my recent book, The User’s Guide to the Human Mind. It comes from a chapter on the ways in which the mind uses past experiences to drive current behavior.
The book reveals that Andy’s silence was driven by experiences much earlier in his life, when he learned that conflict was dangerous. His safest response in those younger days was to retreat from conflict. The strategy worked well back then, but it no longer serves him. Behaviors that once kept us safe are some of the most difficult behaviors to change. It takes special effort to understand and transcend history.
Next: Breaking the Pattern
This is getting long-winded, and I have heard that men should not talk so much. So I will continue this post later with some thoughts on how to break problematic routines like the retreat-and-pursuit pattern.
In the meantime, I’d like your thoughts on the biggest communication problems between men and women. If you have a few moments, please consider taking this short survey for my next book (more info after the jump). In return for your opinion, I’ll discuss the survey results here before the book comes out. Don't hold back! I can handle the truth.
Part Two here.
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Dr. Smith is a psychologist in Denver, Colorado
and the author of The User's Guide to the Human Mind: Why Our Brains Make Us Unhappy, Anxious, and Neurotic and What We Can Do about It.