It’s difficult for me to remember the early days of my relationship with Mr. Strong and Silent. After all, I’ve known him for 12 years. More important, the vast majority of my memories were wiped out during the two sleepless years after our daughter was born. Still, I believe in those early days I incessantly asked him two questions that he was never able to answer:
Question #1: “What are you thinking?”
Question #2: “How do you feel?”
His answer to the first was always either, “Nothing” or “I don’t know.” The second? Exactly the same as the first, assuming he didn’t walk away or change the topic. He didn’t like to talk about his past, his emotions, or his day at work. He didn’t like to talk about anything other than something he’d read in the newspaper, that night’s television, where and how long he’d ridden his bike, and, perhaps, what he wanted to do that weekend.
STRONG AND SILENT VS. STRONG AND SECRETIVE
This unnerved me. I was convinced that his inability to talk meant that he was hiding something. What deep dark secrets did he not want me to know about? Was he afraid to be himself in front of me? Didn’t he know that it was okay to cry or show fear? Was he completely out of touch with his feelings?
We dated for a year, lived together for two years, and then got married. Eventually I stopped asking him about his thoughts or emotions. When we talked, we talked. When we didn’t, we didn’t … until things got really bad and we stopped talking altogether. We’d go out to dinner on date night. From the moment we sat down at a table to the moment we walked out the door, our entire conversation was limited to the simple niceties of restaurant and menu observations, our entre selections, and how each other’s day was. It resembled a disastrous first date where the weather was the focus of the conversation and each person snuck furtive glances at the time between forkfuls.
I would stare at him as he ate. I would try to think of a question I could ask that would elicit anything other than a one-word response. Eventually I stopped trying, and we became two people who lived in the same house, parented the same child, and slept in the same bed, but who did not share a common conversation. That is, until we started working on our marriage.
A few months into our marriage project, we found ourselves back where we had started. I asked him about his thoughts and feelings. He told me they were non-existent. I didn’t believe him and felt frustrated. He sensed my frustration and grew tense. I sensed his tension and got hurt. He sensed my pain and turned on the TV. Eventually, I gave up—yet again. But this time I gave up for a different reason. I gave up because I realized it really didn’t matter how he felt. If he didn’t want to talk about his feelings, then okay. The man didn’t have feelings. Was this such a bad thing?
TALKING MAKES THINGS WORSE?
More recently I read an article that suggested I was doing exactly the right thing. In it Dr. Patricia Love was quoted as saying, “The number one myth about relationships is that talking helps. The truth is, more often than not, it makes things worse.” She explained that women feel calmer when they talk about their feelings. A woman has a bad day at work? She can’t wait to find someone to talk to about it.
A man, on the other hand, has a bad day and can’t wait to forget about it. Asking him about his bad day does the opposite of what you intend. Rather than making him feel loved and comforted, it just reminds him of his failings. His muscles tense up. If he allowed himself to actually put a word to this sensation, he might describe this discomfort as feeling, “Stressed out.” And then, to reduce the growing tension he’ll shut down.
According to experts, this is all normal behavior, in fact, the vast majority of men don’t do feelings, and we should all just accept this and get over it. Now, here’s the problem with all of this: normal isn’t always good or desirable. Sometimes we really do need our men to talk.
Here are a few pointers for getting them to do just that:
• Discuss relationship issues when you are both calm. You’ll get nowhere if you try to solve a problem when you are already fighting. Do it while you are otherwise having a good time.
• It’s easier to get a Strong and Silent man to talk if he’s not also making eye contact. Talk about things while you are walking, furniture shopping, or sitting in the car or in front of the TV.
• Just solve the problem. Say what’s wrong and offer one or two possible solutions. You can say how YOU feel about the situation, but use non-blaming language such as, “I’m so exhausted” or “I’m really sad about this.” Don’t blame him for the problem. Yeah, it might be his fault, but telling him this will not move the conversation forward. Rather, as soon as you move into the blame game, he’s going to shut down. Stay focused on the solution.
Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, which tells the real life story of how she went from the brink of divorce to falling back in love. It's available for pre-order on amazon.com. Visit her blog at http://www.projecthappilyeverafter.com.