Walk side by side

A woman once called me asking why her husband won't share his feelings with her. They have normal conversations about the kids and things around the farm, but she can't get him to talk about their future or retirement finances.

"He won't even look me in the eye," she said. "He clams up. I know it's a tough subject, but we simply have to talk about it."

Like most women, she feels nurtured and supported when she and her husband talk face to face, and he looks her in the eye. But he's uncomfortable doing this, especially with such emotional subjects as how they'll weather a crisis, or if they want to continue ranching.

The situation is complicated by the fact that both of them, in their mid 50s, are in midlife transition and often feel emotionally raw and are easily upset.
I suggested she ask her husband to walk with her, or go for a drive, and talk then. Here's why:

Men often find it easier to talk while doing something (walking, driving or fixing something), and we're specifically not looking into our wife's eyes. According to Jed Diamond in his book, "The Irritable Male Syndrome," having to look into your loved one's eyes during intense discussions puts men on the spot and makes them defensive.

Her husband's withdrawal is what John Gottman, a University of Washington psychology professor and marriage counselor, calls “stonewalling,” meaning disengaging from a conversation or refusing to talk. While it appears he's not interested in what his wife wants to talk about, he in fact cares so deeply, he's too overwhelmed to handle a conversation.

Gottman's research makes sense of this reaction. Gottman discovered a difference in male and female reactions to a heated discussion. Men tend to become more upset physiologically during an intense discussion than women, and the distress continues long after the woman has calmed down.

Men become "flooded," feeling so emotionally and physically overwhelmed, they can't think clearly. In an intense interaction or argument, men are likely to have sweaty hands, a pounding heart, shallow breathing and the feeling that they need to get away.

This may be explained by evolutionary survival, when the male had to be more alert in order to protect the female and her young, and be quickly and easily roused to red alert. A modern man doesn't need this kind of evolutionary afterburner, and is stuck with all engines roaring and nowhere to go.

The only way he knows to cope is to shut down and withdraw into stony silence. This increases the frustration in the woman, who "pursues" him to get him to talk.

If you and your spouse have a problem to discuss, it might be best to do so on a walk, a drive, or doing mild work around the farm. Under low-key circumstances, you might be able to talk about important topics. Of course, be sure to use the "I statements," discussed in the last newsletter's article.

Edmonton-based Noel McNaughton lectures to groups on “Farming/Ranching at Midlife — Strategies for a Successful Second Age.” To learn more, call 780/432-5492, e-mail farm@midlife-men.com, or visit www.midlife-men.com.