Who Gets Up in the Middle of the Night in Your House?
Power struggles between men and women about anxiety.
Posted Sep 26, 2020
I was abruptly awakened early this morning by my wife shaking me and asking “What’s that?” As I groggily came to, I heard the noise she was referring to, and reassured her that it was the sound of a window fan, and then got up and turned it off. I was immediately angry at having my sleep so rudely interrupted for something that seemed so trivial to me. I wondered why something that was bothering her ended up with me out of bed and awake and her going back to sleep? I quickly realized that she woke me up because she was scared, and that both of us reflexively expected me to be in charge of fixing things that frightened her.
I woke in the morning with several questions on my mind:
- Why did the noise bother my wife so much more than it bothered me? It’s not just that she sleeps more soundly. My wife’s default assumption was that there was something wrong, whereas mine was that everything was OK.
- Why did my wife automatically turn to me to take care of her anxiety? I’m pretty sure she did not consider getting up to investigate herself, yet if she were alone I’m sure she would have taken care of it.
- Why did I automatically assume that it was my job to take care of her anxiety?
Anxiety in its simplest form is simply a preoccupation with a series of fearful predictions about an imagined future. Anxiety is not only normal, it is to an extent adaptive, alerting us to potential dangers. Mild to moderate amounts of anxiety increase productivity.
In our culture, women tend to be more anxious than men (Remes, et al., 2016). Because men hold more privilege, things in general work better for them. Men face less challenge, less struggle, and less uncertainty in their lives than women. In other words, men have less to be anxious about. Women have less privilege. They are biologically tied to their offspring and at more risk of abandonment than their male partners, and earn 30 percent less, and are more likely to live in poverty if divorced. Accordingly, women have good reason to be anxious.
Anxiety is also contagious and it’s relational, meaning that when one person in a relationship feels more anxiety the other is likely to feel less. For example, one person in a couple might wake up in the middle of the night, feeling anxious and not be able to get back to sleep. She wakes her partner and talks to him about what she’s feeling anxious about, whereupon she goes right back to sleep and now he feels her anxiety and can’t go back to sleep (Felder, 1988). When women carry more than their share of anxiety in a relationship it protects men from feeling their own anxiety. Women have it and don’t want it. Men have less of it, or at least are not willing to let themselves know they have it, and don’t want to catch it from their partners.
Women naturally want to spread the load—they want men to feel some of the anxiety they are carrying, and men are naturally resistant. For men, being around women who are anxious often makes them feel more of their own anxiety which their privilege has largely protected them from experiencing. Men are socialized to think of anxiety as a feminine trait, and taught to hide their anxiety and “never let them see you sweat,” in large part to protect their privileged status. As a result, men do their best to "take care" of women and "solve" women's’ anxiety in order to protect themselves from feeling more anxious.
Women, in turn, are socialized to be more openly anxious with their male partners because it's often one of the few effective ways of getting some of the emotional attention and caring that they otherwise find difficult to obtain. This often results in a mutually dissatisfying polarization in heterosexual couples in which the woman takes on the role of the anxious person and the man the role of the person responsible for managing his wife’s/partner's anxiety.
All of this helps explains why my wife was more worried about the strange sound in the middle of the night than I was, and why we both automatically assumed that I would be the one to get out of bed to investigate. The way out of this polarized relationship pattern is for each person in the relationship to expand his or her capacity to experience the role they are blocked from.
For men, this might involve not working so hard to suppress their partner's anxiety and allowing themselves to feel more of their own anxiety. For women, this might mean not relying on using anxiety to make a connection with their partners, instead addressing their frustrations and desire for more emotional connection more directly.
Remes, O., Brayne, C., van der Linde. R., & Lafortune, L. (2016). A systematic review of reviews on the prevalence of anxiety disorders in adult populations. Brain and Behavior, https://doi.org/10.1002/brb3.497