A man’s greatest suffering, Stosny says, comes from the shame he feels when he doesn’t measure up—which is why discussing relationship problems (i.e., what he’s doing wrong) offers about as much comfort as sleeping on a bed of nails.
“Talking about feelings, which is soothing to women, makes men physically uncomfortable,” says Stosny, the Maryland-based author of You Don’t Have to Take It Anymore and an expert on male aggression. “There’s literally more blood flow to their muscles. They get fidgety, and women think they’re not listening.”
Okay, this makes sense, but if talking about relationships makes men twitchy and drunk on cortisol, then what’s the alternative? Charades?
“It’s the connection…Everyone—men, women…—need to learn that before we can communicate with words, we need to connect nonverbally. We can do that in simple ways, through touch, sex, doing things together. The deepest moments of intimacy occur when you’re not talking.”
Stosny puts it this way: “We need to stop trying to assess the bonding verbally and instead let the words come out of the bonding.” Interestingly, he adds, “When couples feel connected, men want to talk more and women need to talk less, so they meet somewhere in the middle. Being aware of the fear-shame dynamic helps.”
The book, How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It, by Love and Stosny, is a great read, providing a good understanding of the physiology that drives communication styles, and then provides strategies that encourage better connection between partners.
So often, we think better communication will provide a better connection. And we think it’s a good idea to talk about it…and apparently, we haven’t got the whole story.
“We” can be defined in various ways…women are often responsible for the relationship maintenance in a marriage, and know that better communication helps for increased feelings of connection.
The “we” can also be communication experts…including us therapists…so I will consider myself guilty as charged on both counts…being a woman and a therapist. However…I read and learn…my clients have taught me much about what works and what doesn’t work. I’ve listened carefully…and read studies and books that help me understand what my clients have told me.
Over the years, I’ve moved away from working on communication to working on connection…knowing that “better communication” kinda takes care of itself once the connection is stronger and feels safe and solid to both spouses.
I work with couples on connection…granted, in the office, that is often through verbal communication, but the verbal stuff is secondary to connection.
Stosny and Love have some great thoughts on using different part of the brain to create that connection...they talk about how many use their “toddler” brain to relate to their spouse…it will often be referred to as the “reptilian brain” or “limbic system” in other places.
They provide tools for calming the toddler brain and using the adult brain (also known as the “higher brain”/frontal cortex/mammalian brain) to effectively relate to one’s spouse.
Some of the strategies are “fake it until you make it” strategies which create a shift by intentionally choosing to think in ways that can only occur in the adult brain…by choosing to be the spouse you want to be regardless of the other’s behavior, by reminding yourself that the worst outcome in adult love is: “I’m disappointed, but I’m okay, and I love you.”
The article on Oprah.com finishes with a personal experiment by the author:
Love adds, “couples have to decide that the relationship is more important than all those things they do that annoy each other.”
“Even when Hugh throws his sopping wet towel on the bed, forgets to put gas in the car, or stares into space when I try to tell him something that really matters to me?” I ask, only half joking.
“If you give him positive reinforcement instead of criticizing him, he’ll start doing more of the things you want him to do,” Love says.
The next night over dinner, I give it a whirl. “I love it when you put gas in the car and hang up your wet towel,” I say. He looks at me like I’ve gone off the deep end.“What’s up?” he asks suspiciously. “Why are you being so nice?”But a few days later when I’m distraught over a potentially scary mammogram report and he jumps in too quickly to reassure me that everything will turn out fine (it does), I decide to try out the binocular vision that Love and Stosny recommend. That’s when I see that Hugh feels like a failure because he wants to make things better and he can’t.So instead of my usual knee-jerk irritability at what I perceive as his lack of sensitivity, I say, “I’m terrified and I just need you to listen.” Which he does, patiently, lovingly. After I’ve finished reciting my laundry list of fears, he holds me close and neither of us says anything for a long time.
We don’t need to.
It’s the connection…