You’d think that with all the gender-related research that has taken place over the last 20 years, modern men and women would be better equipped to just accept our differences and live together peacefully. Informed by all those studies, I should be able to accept my husband’s hard-wired behavior, and he should be able to embrace my innate femaleness—because as research shows, it’s nothing personal. And in truth, men usually do accept that some things just “are what they are”—wives and girlfriends included—and cut us plenty of slack for behavior and attitudes that can seem a bit odd from a male perspective. (My husband still can’t fathom why my daughters and I find pedicures relaxing—to him it would be the worst form of tickle torture—but he gracefully accepts that our experience is different from his.)
By contrast, women often have a harder time of letting go and just accepting some of the manly quirks that show up in long-term relationships—removing the personal, in other words. One of these is a man’s tendency to make like a turtle and retreat into his shell when conflict appears on the horizon. In fact, for some guys, going silent is simply a default setting—whether happy, depressed, angry, or worried. Meanwhile, women have a hard time believing that not talking about a problem might actually be a healthy and loving strategy. If you frequently get frustrated with your guy for clamming up just when you’d like him to open up, are these some of the adjectives you mentally apply to his behavior?
- Out of touch
That list is made up of real complaints from married women I have coached over the years. What those adjectives imply is that for some unknown reason, your honey is choosing a behavior (going silent) that deliberately brings pain to the woman he supposedly loves (you!). Assuming yours is a reasonably healthy and harmonious relationship otherwise, that doesn’t sound very logical does it? How would it benefit him to drive you batty on purpose? And you know guys are all about logic … Men do what makes sense—to them.
So to better understand his tactics, it helps to understand the value of silence from your guy’s perspective:
- Silence is calming. Companionable silence can be among a man’s greatest pleasures in life, and well accompanies typical dude activities like chess, golf, fly fishing, and poker. By contrast, when a woman needs to self-sooth, her impulse is usually to talk about her concerns—verbal sharing is calming for her. In this respect, men and women truly have competing needs.
- Silence is safe. Even a modern husband feels the pull of primitive instincts. Ancestors who learned to hunt silently were more successful at providing food for their family and community. Silence offers protection. Both men and women seek safety during times of stress—for a man, silence is his safe place.
- Silence works in other areas of life. In his work life, and certainly in the company of other men, there is rarely a downside to silence. Talk, on the other hand, can be risky. Saying too much (or the wrong thing) can make someone vulnerable to attack. Men generally can point to a lifetime of experiences that support this approach. If your experience has been that silence is generally a winning strategy, with very little downside risk, it makes sense that it would be your go-to position as well.
The next time your well-meaning sweetie opts NOT to “talk things out,” try to see his behavior as a teeny bit chivalrous, like opening a door for you or carrying a heavy package. In adopting silence, his hard-wired impulses may be to:
a) calm down
b) protect you and your relationship.
If you can look at it that way, you will generate loads more good will than if you immediately label his behavior in a negative way. And when you allow him to become emotionally restored and recharged—his way—he’ll be better able to give you what you need.