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Why Couples Fight

Sunday, March 3, 2013

If you were to say to the man in your life, “Honey, we need to talk about our relationship,” what do you think would happen? Most women would expect their men to get defensive, irritated, fidgety, distracted, or shut down completely; and most men would feel like they’re being punished for a crime they didn’t commit. 


It turns out that men are right; talking about your relationship is more likely to make it worse than better. Research shows that talking about emotions calms women but makes men feel uncomfortable -- and not only because the “talks” are usually complaints about how he is failing in the relationship. Men experience more physiological arousal with more blood flow to their muscles when they have certain emotions. It is physically uncomfortable for them to talk, especially when they feel shame, and they are likely to feel shame when you approach them with anxiety or unhappiness.     


There’s something more powerful than the stereotypical nagging wife and stonewalling husband at work here. It’s the same dynamic that seizes both of you when you startle at something on the road while he’s driving. He sees your fear as an assault on his charioteering and either puts a chilly wall between you or angrily shows you how aggressively he can drive. 


What happens to both of you when you get afraid of his driving and when you want to talk about your relationship is a primal dynamic that is present in all social animals: Your fear stimulates his shame/aggression. Often punished at an early age for showing vulnerable emotions (“Big boys don’t cry!”), males tend to merge shame and aggression. To avoid the exceeding pain of shame, they become aggressive. That is why “Death before dishonor” is not a phrase associated with women’s groups. 


We are also unlikely to hear the phrase, “No woman is an island.” Worse than feeling bad for a woman is having no one care that she feels bad. When women talk to each other, they often make connection by exposing vulnerability. If you tell her girlfriend, “I feel sad, lonely, ignored, etc,” she hears your complaint as an invitation to move closer and lets you know that she cares. So why can’t your husband do it like your girlfriends? 


By adulthood, normal male socialization has funneled the shame-aggression response into a dread of failure, particularly as a provider, protector, lover, and parent. Anxiety or unhappiness in his woman makes him feel like he’s failing. Sarah was nervous about the weight she had put on when she modeled her new dress for her husband. “How do I look?” she asked.


Sensing her nervousness, Scott replied, “How much did it cost?” 
This simple exchange in an otherwise loving relationship started a fight about money that quickly expanded to include sex, in-laws, and their relationship. But the fight wasn’t about any of those things. Her anxiety about her appearance triggered his shame, which he associated with provider inadequacy – he feels he doesn’t make enough money. Of course, his response made her feel like she wasn’t worth the cost of the dress. 


The invisible fear-shame dynamic is at the core of a great many relationship problems. The good news is that connection soothes both fear and shame. (That’s why you want to talk in the first place, to feel more connected.) It takes some practice, but you can learn to connect before you talk. Good talks occur when you feel connected, because connection calms both fear and shame. With very little training, you’ll disarm the fear-shame dynamic and have the love and communication you long for and deserve.



Dr. Stosny has been a featured guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show. He is also the founder of Compassion Power in suburban Washington, DC, and he is also the author of How to Improve your Marriage without Talking about It: Finding Love Beyond Words, and Love Without Hurt, and Turn Your Resentful, Angry, or Emotionally Abusive Relationship into a Compassionate, Loving One.


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