Many women have told me of their attempts to have meaningful conversations with a partner only to find themselves lobbing more and more words, hoping just a few will land and maybe work their way to the heart. I smile over one woman’s description of herself pursuing her husband from room to room, up the stairs, and out the front door. All the while she is asking herself “What am I doing? I know better!” But the desperate voice in her is countering, “I just have to connect!” and won’t let her stop talking. She watches in frustration as he acts like he is trying to dodge a bullet.
Why all this desperation, this painful reaching on one side and backing away on the other and eventual blaming all around, when both just want a close and loving relationship? The answer has to do with the fundamental differences in how men and women are biologically wired.
The core vulnerabilities of men and women are not the same. For most women the greatest fear lies in isolation and lack of security. Ask a woman what she most fears about divorce or losing her job and she’s likely to lead you through a cascade of fears to her most dreaded image—herself as a bag lady, deprived of basic needs and contact, and all alone. She will unconsciously strive for security and forge relationships to insulate herself from this nightmare.
Men are more biologically and socially prepared for overcoming self-preservation fears. Theirs is a different vulnerability, a painful mixture of inadequacy and shame. Avoiding this nightmare drove many men to suicide during the Great Depression and it is happening again in this most recent financial crisis. Could death seem like a better alternative to a man than failing those he loves? Providing for family and protecting loved ones are powerful drives, sometimes seen in overwork, jockeying for power, or competing for a win (and not just in sports).
Put these different vulnerabilities into a relationship and what do you get? Two people trying to get their needs met, yet feeling like their partner is withholding what is most needed. And it’s not even intentional withholding. We’re too often unaware of these needs, in ourselves and in our partners, and blind to how often our differing core vulnerabilities become polarized.
Dr. Patricia Love and Dr. Steven Stosny, write in How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It “You can live a lifetime without ever hearing a man say, “I feel ashamed when you get scared of my driving” or a woman say, “I want that Gucci bag to keep my fear of deprivation at bay.” Instead you will see these core vulnerabilities show up in relationships in less obvious forms, such as blame and withdrawal.
Let’s look at an example. When LeeAnn noticed an overdraft charge on the joint checking account she started thinking back on how many times this had happened during their marriage. She recalled with resentment that she and Joe had refinanced their home in order to get out of debt, at the cost of most of their equity. Her core vulnerability was triggered and she felt a growing panicky feeling. She immediately implemented her instinctual strategy—reaching toward Joe to help stabilize her wobbly sense of security. Joe heard the words “We need to talk about our finances,” and he recalled previous discussions. He was quickly triggered by the thought “On No! She’s about to find fault with me again.” His body prepared him with a shot of cortisol initiating a fight or flight reaction--his best (unconscious) hope of getting away from the pain of shame.
Reach and pull away, panic and shame, have set the stage for the odd and distorted dance that follows. Neither could tell that the other just wanted to feel safe and connected.
As we learn more about our biology and our differences, we begin to see that we can’t expect the same reactions in our partners that we have. But we can expect to ultimately want the same thing—connection. How we get that connection must take into account the differing vulnerabilities that we must overcome to maintain contact in the face of instinctual reactions. No longer can we just assume that better communication will be the tool that assures connection. Most couples do a good enough job communicating, except when they are triggered.
Be aware of these 3 cautions:
1. Know your core vulnerability and that of your partner.
2. Know your triggers (topics, words, actions, or situations) and those of your partner.
3. In advance of known triggers, adopt strategies to get around reach and pullback, fear, shame, and blame.
Here are a few bypass strategies you might try:
· Rather than focusing on what’s wrong, ask for what you need. Partners can respond much more easily to a request for more frequent reviews of the bank account balance than words that imply they are financially incompetent.
· Take more responsibility for your own security. If its about financial security, initiate actions such as talking to your CPA, financial planning, creating a budget, and having a savings plan. If it’s about emotional security, find support. A good resource might be a women’s group, short-term counseling, or a telecourse for self-improvement. A good telecourse that also provides peer support is offered by Dr. Jay Earley at www.earley.org.
· Cultivate compassion for and understanding of the intensity of your partner’s vulnerability. Though it has a different flavor, it is every bit as gripping as your own.
Please share your strategies with me and other women by posting a response. We can learn so much from each other.