By Rebecca Jorgensen
I was in church this morning and in Sunday School the question came up about what we need from each other in the marriage relationship. The exchange inspired me to write a little bit about how to help your husband be more emotionally present for you when you’re distressed.
It was interesting to hear wives respond to wanting to share goals and plans, and also wanting to turn to their partner for comfort and soothing by spouting off about their tension.
Husbands for the most part shared they wanted companionship, time to play together and to feel confident their wives are happy with them.
One husband said he felt distressed when his wife was unhappy even if her unhappiness, irritation, complaining, etc. was not about him. He said he wants “happy” to be her standard, normal way of being and operating in the world. When she’s not happy he feels this dreaded feeling that something is wrong, something must be broken and so he goes into “fix it” mode. He has confidence he knows how to fix things.
Of course when he tries to “fix it”, that’s head stuff, logic. A response that is filled with logic does not join with the emotional energy the wife initiated the conversation with. It’s like one party serving a tennis ball and the other one hitting it back with a golf club. A logical response is not only a miss (mis-attunement) it escalates the emotional energy. Oh no. This is the exact opposite effect the husband was striving for.
To make matters worse, when he goes to “fix it” the message she gets is that he is rejecting her feelings and what she is seeking is feeling acceptance and emotional joining. You can clearly see how his “fix it” response escalates a negative interaction between them. The need the wife started the exchange with wanting him to be playing doubles with her on her team, she wasn’t serving to him. She wanted him to see and understand her and to be with her. Now he’s disappointed her, and that’s the last thing he wanted to do!
Let’s look at it from the husband’s side. First off, he didn’t know any that. Who hits a fast serve when there’s no one on the other side of the net?
Then, because the husband believes she’s serving to him, hits the ball back. And when he hits the ball back she finds out, not only is he on the other side of the net he’s in a different game. His golf club response, straight, to the point and problem solving feels like a line drive, and it goes against the emotional energy and information flow she is in.
Matters become even worse because predictably she will meet his “fix it” energy like he’s become the opponent and she will turn her negative energy on to him. “You don’t get me.” “I don’t need you to fix it for me.” “You never understand.” “I can fix it myself.” Of course, then he defends himself, “you’re so emotional” “Why can’t you just settle down?” “How come everything has to be such a big deal with you?” “I’m only trying to help.”
It all happens very fast. She ends up emotionally alone and disappointed that sharing her negative feelings with him did not create the joining and comfort she wanted. He ends up alone also, rejected and feeling like a failure because once again he was not able to meet his wife’s needs.
It’s lose/lose. And sad.
One wife shared in class that her husband has learned to ask her “is this one of those times when you just need me to listen?” When he does that he’s able to listen to her without being triggered into “fix it” mode. She LOVES when that happens. Of course, then he feels better too because he was able to do his duty and provide her protection from increased distress and get his needs met that he’s making her happy.
If your husband makes the mistake of going into “fix it” mode when you’re distressed here’s three steps to help him help you. ha ha. Remember that Jerry McGuire line, “Help me help you! Help me help you.” The twist here is for you to help him help you.
When you are not distressed share with your husband, in this order, that:
1. You trust his intention is always to help you and you love that he is such a good problem solver and is able to think through things so well.
2. You know it’s very hard for him when you are in a tense and negative-emotional place and you don’t like being distressed either.
3. You will, next time you’re really needing his emotional (not logical) presence, let him know it’s one of those times and you really need him to just listen. Let him know the solution to your distress is to have him with you, in your emotional boat.
Remember, what’s natural, easy and logical for you to do (stay closely connected when you see people in distress) is not natural, easy or logical for your partner. After you have this conversation with him, if he can prevent himself from going into “fix-it” mode and just listen you are off to a very good start. Notice it, and let him know you appreciate his dedication and his listening REALLY HELPS.
Your gratitude and appreciation is something he really longs for, give it freely.