Who is that quiet mystery man?  He barely says a word.  His icy silence offers little hint about what he thinks or feels.  His wife complains about his lack of sharing.  She feels lonely and disconnected.  If only he would open up.

     A chorus of wives and female partners complain that their men don’t communicate.  They keep everything inside. The female partners usually say, “When we first met, he talked a lot. What happened?!!!”  Adding to their pain is that  women prefer building closeness and connection through verbal sharing; confirming the adage, “The way to a woman’s heart is through her ears.”  So when a male partner falls quiet, the relationship bond weakens, especially for wives and girlfriends.

     Generally men and women talk for different reasons.  Whenever generalizing about genders and relationships, a truth often applies but exceptions are common as well. Men tend to communicate for specific purposes, to get things done. Whereas women talk more often to relate, gain or give support. Because of this women use more words.  On the contrary, the male perspective on words is commonly, “fewer words the better.” Adding to the confusion about male communication patterns, a quiet man at home may be talkative with non-intimate acquaintances and co-workers.

     Differences in communicate styles explain only part of the reason why male partners get quiet. Another complaint female partners’ voice is that when their men do talk, they rarely share their feelings, the most valuable kind of sharing for developing closeness.  Men and women differ in how they experience their emotions; unlike women who are readily aware of their feelings and whose emotions feature largely in how they identify themselves, men’s emotions are buried below their moment to moment awareness.  Louder in men’s consciousness are their thoughts, opinions, and preferences. Generally, men are less “emotionally intelligent” than women.

    Because love relationships are highly emotional entities by nature less emotionally aware men gravitate towards relating through activity rather than through verbal sharing. Examples of this are men who make themselves valuable to their female partners by being a good financial provider, by being a helper, a fixer, an expert, a guide rather than by being an emotionally expressive conversationalist.  Given his inner make-up, it is far easier for many men to do than to feel. While constructive, a man can fulfill his capacity within these “doing” roles, but his female partner will always wish for a more complete, balanced partner…one who can do these activities and can talk, share and express, her preferred modality to connect.  Most male partners will never be like a woman’s girlfriend, who naturally excels at free-flowing chat.

    Men have just as many emotions as do women, but are less aware of them. The volume of the feelings is quieter, part of the reason men do not prioritize their feelings as highly as do women.  None-the-less, when men feel bad, their feelings also impact them in a large way.  Their strategies to cope with negative emotions differ from their female partners. Unlike women who typically seek support, usually by sharing with other women, men tend to isolate themselves while staying busy with non-emotional tasks, such as an active project or video game. Because women seek support in problems, a female partner may feel hurt and rejected when their male partners do not come to them for help with problems.  Men are different than women in more than the obvious ways, yet many women expect and hope men will respond like women.

    When a relationship has become troubled, tension grows between partners. It is not unusual that female partners, conscious of discomfort, express what they feel and wish to verbally process problematic issues.  Women are much more likely to react strongly and express generously emotional discomfort.  Female partner expressions that are loud, sharp, disapproving or accusational are ones about which male partners cope poorly.  Men experience much discomfort at their female partner’s unhappiness and the way it is expressed. They possess no adequate response.  Some men “shut down” in reaction…lacking emotional confidence to mount a challenge or offer compassion.

    Most men avoid expressing themselves so as to prevent unintentionally provoking conflict and the associated discomfort. When conflict and emotionally intense discussions erupt male partners do not experience a level playing field; most repeatedly find that when in conflict their female partners, she succeeds at “turning it around on them.”  Male partners are at a disadvantage because they are less emotionally aware in a highly emotional situation.  Men prefer to use a rational strategy; when a female partner expresses strongly from her emotions, male partners often do not adapt well to an emotional, non-rational process.  Feeling powerless and at a disadvantage, some men resort to use of aggression and loud anger to level the playing field, a destructive and ultimately damaging method.

    A male partner’s reticence has many causes. Many men fear abrupt negative anger, such as sharp reactions to momentary displeasure, which leave them emotionally unprepared and confused. Men grow cautious and ill-at-ease when around female partners who have a history of sudden negative emotion; the same ill-at-ease that is at the root of much male sexual performance problems. These are the quiet men. They are wary of hurtful anger, negative or intense emotion and cannot consistently predict when it may erupt or what may provoke it. To them female upset frequently is confusing and irrational. Men in this situation prefer the safety that is secured by remaining quiet.

Many men are not all that good at identifying their feelings in the first place, thus are incapable of expressing what they feel when something is wrong.  When asked by their female partners, their response of “nothing”  may true to their actual awareness.  At other times, “nothing” is a deflection to avoid revealing an emotion that will make them feel vulnerable, an experience too close to weakness for most men’s comfort.  A man’s silence may hide his inner pain and give outward justification to the common modus operandi, “If there’s nothing good to say, say nothing at all.”

    Still other men have given up on expressing their emotions after long-feeling that their emotional needs are not listened or responded to by their female partner. The male way of thinking and doing can appear odd and even wrong to women, but may be differently effective. After repeatedly finding that their voice has been disregarded, their ideas thoughts and opinions dismissed, sharing feelings is a high hurdle over which many men do not want to jump.  Opening up and sharing more may happen once a man is secure in the knowledge that if he does, he will be well listened and responded to.

     “Just talk more” is not an effective prescription to increase male-partner communication and restore how they  spoke generously months or years earlier during courtship. To reduce tension and melt away anger and other negative emotions, those that lead to female partner sharp anger and attitude, other channels of showing love must be utilized, because verbal sharing is not the only method of building connection and showing love. Male partners are more comfortable with activity-based methods of showing love, even more so during times of relationship distress.  Quiet men can benefit from the strengthening of their confidence and assertiveness.  They ought to learn more about their emotions and practice putting words to them while female partners simultaneously attempt to soften the sharp edge when expressing displeasure.  For the development of more sharing from male partners, couples being relaxed together with lowered risk of conflict or negativity may get the job done over time. Even quiet men wish to share to be successful romantic partners.  Doing so is important because the way to a woman’s heart is through her ears.  Andrew Aaron, LICSW

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