Have you noticed that, for many men, feelings are not a language they speak (with the exception, of course, of anger, frustration, irritation, and perhaps sexual feelings)? People unfamiliar with the “language” of feelings may never become “fluent” in it, because if they came from an environment where men don’t discuss feelings, it’s like teaching one who only sees in black and white what color looks like — but, believe me, it’s not impossible. It’s my belief that we all have feelings but that many of us (particularly men, but also including many women) a) haven’t learned how to first even notice or identify feelings (other than irritation or anger) when they come up, and b) haven’t a clue as to how or what to communicate them once they’re aware that they are, in fact experiencing ‘one’.
In my coaching with couples, I use a circle and place what I call our “primary feelings” inside the circle and our “secondary” feelings & behaviors on the outside. (I explain that we’re excluding the feelings of joy or happiness because that’s, obviously, not a problem that brings couples in for help); so what we’re looking at is what I call negative or uncomfortable feeling states.)
I explain that when we’re significantly upset in any way and not in touch with the primary or more tender feelings on the inside of the circle, we tend do one of several things. These things we do are ways of coping, are unconscious, and are based on the limbic system’s’ ‘fight or flight’ response. That response is still neurologically wired into our human brains just as though we were still living in the jungle and had to protect ourselves and loved ones against predators. When we get into an argument or quarrel with our significant other, that autonomic limbic system has us either withdraw, i.e. flight (in one of several ways) or argue, i.e. fight in response to what appears to our nervous system to be real and present danger.
So, unless we’re very conscious of our feeling states, we tend to “act out” the energy of those feelings (and feelings are, in fact energy) in one of several ways: withdrawal (i.e. pulling away either physically, emotionally, or perhaps avoiding being home), anger (which can range from mild irritability to rage and result in much undue drama in your relationship), and sometimes in addictions (such as excessive time in front of the computer, the internet, or excessive time out drinking with the boys, etc.)
What sits below those behaviors and “secondary feelings” are inner or core feelings. I’ts like peeling an onion. As you get to the core, you find the more tender feelings, which are all variations on the following spectrums, like the hues of color on a color chart, ranging, on a continuum, from very mild to very extreme, and falling, for our purposes, into one of several distinct and identifiable categories. These categories don’t reflect all of the feelings scientists have discovered that humans are capable of experiencing, but are the most significant ones that couples confront regularly, based upon my years of my psychotherapy, marriage conseling, and my coaching practice with couples.
There’s sadness (ranging from feeling slightly “blue” or a sense of isolation/loneliness/disconnection or a sense of loss), fear (ranging from slight concern, apprehension to terror at the other extreme – always related to the future), and two related feeling-states, namely, shame and guilt (both relating to feelings of inadequacy or having done, thought or said something “wrong”). Note, also, that sexual feelings also constitute a type of feeling but aren’t relevant to this discussion. The reason we react (rather than respond) by “acting out” in either anger, withdrawal or some form of addictive behavior is because of the nature of our limbic system and the ‘fight vs. flight’ dynamic.
As stated above, our nervous systems can’t differentiate between being confronted with a wild carnivorous animal in the jungle vs. our partner being upset with us or pulling away from us emotionally. So our nervous system goes into flight/flight mode and the “secondary” emotions and behaviors above are examples of what that actually looks like in the context of intimate relationships.
So our goal, in our relationship work, is to learn to “peel the onion” from the outer layer of behaviors (the secondary level) to what’s really going on underneath. This takes emotional reflection or insight, honesty, courage, and is oftentimes facilitated by a third party who acts as coach or therapist. It is an incredible phenomenon to watch anger or withdrawal dissolve into thin air when individuals who weren’t aware of what they were really feeling connect with their more primal and core feelings.
That is a big part of the work for both partners, but particularly for the partner — often the male — not used to “speaking the language of feelings”. Feel free to view my video on on “Peeling the Onion & Mending Your Marriage” on this website.
I have a number of suggestions I hope will be helpful to you. Again, firstly, know that your experience is not at all uncommon. Good and healthy marriages take lots of work. There are things you can do. The good news is that I’m worked with scores of men who have LEARNED how to identify feelings and then talk about them. I’m talking about men who seemingly had no clue as to what they were feeling previously. Many have told me that they didn?t even know what sadness or shame felt like, having never experienced them. My perspective is that we ALL experience the range of feelings but many are not aware of them when they come up. Think of it almost as a form of numbness or emotional anesthesia.
Firstly, working with a marriage counselor or relationship coach who first teaches you what feelings are (yes, this can be taught) and secondly, helps you to learn how to express them, can be very, very helpful. It’s important that both you and your husband feel a rapport with, and trust the competency of any therapist or coach you choose to work with. Shop around. Ask yourselves if you’d be more comfortable with a male or female counselor. Speak with several coaches or counselors until you find one that feels right for both of you. Make no apologies if/when it doesn’t feel right. Your marriage needs a communication overhaul. There is only one place this can begin: where you both are now and what both of you are experiencing.
Channels of communication need to be opened up in a safe and supportive way. There is a good chance that, unbeknownst to him, your husband may also be feeling lonely, sad, or disconnected, but in his own way, perhaps not even knowing it. He may not know that anything is missing. Men are so often different from women in that many may need less emotional interplay and communication to feel safe and grounded.
One piece of good news is that men can learn to be more emotionally communicative: the only requirement is that they are at least open to the process. I’ve seen it happen time and time and time again. At the same time, women also need to learn their husband’s “native” language of communication which is not always via words — which may be far different than that to which they are accustomed. A good book to read on the subject of the different languages that people — especially men and women — speak is “The Five Languages of Love”.
The first step is to sit down with your husband at a time that feels safe, and really let him know the depth of your despair. Make sure you check out with him when is a good time to talk or you’ll be wasting your energy and end up feeling more disconnected, disheartened and actually worse. Don’t hide your sense of loneliness or disconnection from him. When it sinks in that you really are unhappy, it is likely that he’ll be concerned and want to make things better for you.
In addition, for you, the woman, make sure that you don’t overlook the importance of spending time with and relying on others in your life for connection and support – on friends and family. That is, notwithstanding your goal of increasing intimacy with your husband, know that a balance is ideal where your needs are not all met from one person. If you don’t have enough of a support network, work on building one through engaging in activities that you enjoy or perhaps joining a support group.
If your husband is adamant against being in couples relationship coaching or marriage counseling, don’t rule out the possibility of seeing a coach or counselor yourself to help you cope and deal more effectively with the challenges you’re facing. Things can and will improve if you are steadfast. Remember: you are entitled to feel happy, to feel at least minimally connected to your spouse, and to have love and joy in your life.