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Manipulative or Unaware? Inside the Male Mind

How men and women can communicate more effectively in relationships.

Key points

  • When men aim to be accommodating in relationships, it can sometimes backfire and lead to resentment.
  • Resentment may be due to pressure men feel to succeed. This can lead them to suppress vulnerability and lose some emotional awareness.
  • Men and women can break this cycle by being more honest and direct with one another.
Kupicoo/Getty
Source: Kupicoo/Getty

Some men see themselves as low maintenance when in reality they minimize or deny their feelings, unaware of their own expectations and limits. In this dynamic, men overestimate their ability to give up what they want and be agreeable, failing to recognize the cost of submission to them and the relationship

Predictably, it all falls apart when, despite their good deed, they get blamed for something or nonetheless encounter a “demand” or other perceived injustice they didn’t think was part of the deal.

For example, let's say Jared goes out of his way to be agreeable. When his wife wants her family to visit the week before his bar exam, he tells her it’s okay. He wants to make her happy and keep the peace. Though secretly hurt and irritated that she didn’t consider him, he can live with it.

Then, when his in-laws arrive, he is late coming home, dutiful and cordial, but aloof. He finds himself getting into political debates with his in-laws. Later his wife is mad, accusing him of being unfriendly, distant, and argumentative. Fuming, he feels unappreciated — having given in yet again, only to be met with criticism and complaints. She insists he somehow set her up, arguing that he agreed to have them over, and then punished her, feigning innocence and making himself into the victim.

He just can’t win.

Some men tell the same story: They try to please. They say the right thing. They do what women ask. But no matter what they do, they can’t get it right.

How does being nice backfire?

Men’s instinct to accommodate sometimes backfires, leaving a trail of hurt and resentment that they may avoid, compartmentalize, or bury. When men do recognize their resentment, they wrongly believe it’s concealed and cannot be detected. But, unbeknownst to them, their reactions can take on a life of their own.

Secret rebellion against feeling controlled can play out unconsciously through behaviors such as forgetting, lateness, silence, and grouchiness — transmitting resentment and sowing mistrust. So when women react to these meta-communications and perceive duplicity, men blow up — feeling unfairly accused and taken for granted. Disowned resentment evolves into a confusing and frustrating spiral of conflict in which both people feel unfairly accused and mistreated; men have no idea why women are mad at them, and the original issue goes underground.

Men are often under tremendous pressure to perform, measure up to other men, and be successful. They aren’t supposed to complain, be scared, or depend on others. Perhaps the most challenging of the responsibilities they take on is to build a fulfilling relationship, which can seem like an unsolvable mystery.

Male vulnerability: How to translate what's left unsaid

Contrary to some stereotypes, boys begin life more vulnerable than girls: more distressed by separation from mothers and less secure, with greater difficulty recovering from distress (Schore, 2017).

Carol Yeppes/Getty
Source: Carol Yeppes/Getty

Under penalty of humiliation, they often learn to shun vulnerability, eventually becoming removed from awareness of their own experience of these feelings. This condition causes them to disconnect from women’s hurt as well. Instead of being empathic, they take it as a criticism and feel unappreciated, responding with insensitivity or counterattack.

Men sometimes suck it up and act the opposite of how they feel, warding off the shame of feeling uncared about or hurt. They may distract themselves through work or become withdrawn or controlling.

In intimate relationships, feelings are the operative force and the “loudest” part of communication, eclipsing words and penetrating through nonverbal signals such as tone, mood, and facial expressions. We are hardwired to pick up these signals, which imperceptibly code whether an interaction is safe or dangerous.

Men are not always tuned in to the reality of their own state of mind or the signals they are communicating, creating confusion about who is doing what to whom. When it comes to navigating emotionally loaded terrain with women, some men struggle with submission being the “safest” or only option. Then they have to escape and, through unwitting wrongdoing and acting out, end up as the underdog.

Both men and women can respectfully be aware of these dynamics, rather than conveniently disregarding their “invisible” needs until they act out. When one person is the underdog or marginalized, regardless of why, both people are punished, potentially leading to loneliness and disconnection, and putting the couple at risk.

Men and women can recognize that they are on the same side and negotiate together.

How to promote harmony

Ideas for women:

  • Express appreciation for gestures men do, regardless of whether they “should” do them and whether or not they hit the mark.
  • Be explicit in acknowledging what men are giving up when they agree to something. Ask them to predict how it will play out, pretending they would win a fortune for a correct prediction.
  • Make it an explicit option to say no without penalty. Or ask what they want in return and make a deal. You don’t have to agree but allowing your partner a voice goes a long way in making them feel they matter, preventing acting out.

Ideas for men:

Before agreeing to something:

  • Break the fantasy that fuels anger. Remind yourself that there is no contract stating that if you give your partner “what she wants” she will be quietly satisfied, or that you’ll be guaranteed to get the “one thing” you want later.
  • Fast forward in your mind and predict the dreaded scenario, preempting resentment. Adjust your expectations and decisions accordingly.
  • Remind yourself that compliance by default leads to resentment that’s conspicuous to her, but not you, and that can be harmful.
  • When tempted to say yes but you really want to say no, tell your partner you don’t want to disappoint her but are working on being more honest and don’t want to become resentful.
  • Test out doing something different to break the pattern. Bring up something you want to do that is low stakes. Or explicitly negotiate a deal together.

References

Schore, Allan N. (2017). All Our Sons: The Developmental Neurobiology and Neuroendocrinology of Boys at Risk. Infant Mental Health Journal, 38 (1), 15-52. https://doi.org/10.1002/imhj.21616

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