My husband and I* find ourselves in the same type of argument, over and over again. Rinse and repeat. It goes a little like this:

>> I bring up something that’s bothering me. (It doesn’t matter how gently or carefully I say it.)

>> He immediately gets defensive.

>> I get frustrated that he’s being defensive.

>> He gets stubborn.

>> I get resentful that he’s being stubborn and start to criticize him.

>> He shuts down and starts stonewalling me.

>> I get extremely hurt and feel like he doesn’t care about me.

Round and round we go until someone waves the white flag. However, this never happens without a whole lotta tears and words that we wish we could take back. 

I’ve always considered myself an excellent communicator. I’ve read the books, I’ve listened to the experts, I’ve honed my skills with active listening techniques, avoiding the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and using all of the “I” statements. I want to talk about the issue so we can find a solution and feel connected again. But he doesn’t want to talk. He feels attacked and condemned. Did I say the wrong thing? Was it the wrong time to talk? Does he just not care about me? Is this never-ending cycle ruining our marriage?

I had to find an actual solution.

Then I came across this quote:

“Couples are not disconnected because they have poor communication. They have poor communication because they are disconnected.”

Dr. Pat Love

In their book, How to Improve Marriage Without Talking About It, Dr. Pat Love and Dr. Steven Stosny describe the root cause of why a perfectly good marriage can fail without either person doing anything wrong. No matter how hard you try to fix the issue by talking through it, this one thing is making it worse, not better. It’s called the Fear/Shame Spiral.

Please note: the studies done by Love and Stosny looked at the relationship between men and women as group averages, not individual differences. Keep in mind that the rest of this blog speaks to men in general and women in general. Although their studies apply to the majority, they do not tell us anything about individual men and women. That being said…

Fear and Shame

The most common female core vulnerability is the fear of abandonment: isolation, neglect, rejection, feeling alone.

Most women thrive on closeness and connection. So naturally, if there is any type of issue, she needs to talk through it to feel connected again. Women generally actually view a complaint as an invitation to move closer. We’ve had a bad day, we want to talk about it. We had a frustrating experience at the store, so we called up our best friend to vent. However…

The most common male core vulnerability is feeling shame: embarrassment, weakness, failure, inadequacy.

Men tend to pride themselves on being able to please their partner. But if there is any type of issue, men may feel like they’ve let their spouse down. This intense feeling of shame activates their fight or flight response, making them shut down, stonewall, get angry, or defensive. 

Then We Spiral Down

When a woman feels like her spouse isn’t showing up for her in the way she needs (whether that’s something like forgetting to switch the laundry or not speaking her love language), it activates her core vulnerability of feeling fear and anxiety. Her complaint, request, or comment, however unassuming it may seem, sounds like criticism to her husband, which triggers his core vulnerability — feeling shame. He’s let her down, he’s not provided or protected her, and all he has done for her has been overlooked.

In other words, he feels like a complete failure. Flooded with the stress hormone cortisol, his body immediately goes into fight or flight, and he feels the need to defend and withdraw. This, of course, feels like abandonment and triggers her fear and anxiety even more, which triggers his shame more. And round and round they go. No matter who started it, the Fear/Shame spiral is a vicious cycle that just breeds more and more disconnection and hurt.

YOU CAN BE HAPPILY MARRIED.

And no, that’s not just a fairytale. Sometimes we settle, we coexist, we go along to get along, or we just try to keep the damage to a minimum. There are no perfect marriages. There are also no unicorns. So what? You can always Maximize Your Marriage. You know what’s NOT a mythical creature? Your marriage being BETTER than you could ever imagine.

To help you write the next chapter of your marriage story, each module features…

  • A simple, easy-to-understand video lead by marriage experts,
  • A download to help you personalize the key concepts for your marriage, and
  • Action items to transform your marriage as you go through the course.

You’ll have access to two marriage experts every step of the way to answer any questions or just give you a little encouragement. (THIS is what makes Maximize Your Marriage customized & personalized!)

So What’s The Solution?

When I discovered the Fear/Shame Spiral, everything started making sense. But… How in the world can I stop the spiral from happening? Just never bring up another complaint? Yeah right. 

According to Dr. Pat Love, there are a few things you can stop doing right now to help:

If you don’t want your husband to feel shame, don’t…

  • Expect him to act and respond as you would
  • Criticize him or belittle him (especially in front of others)
  • Compare him to others
  • Expect him to make you happy

If you don’t want your wife to feel fear and anxiety, don’t…

Now Let’s Cut to the Chase

The only way out of the Fear/Shame Spiral is by recognizing you’re in it and empathizing with your spouse’s core vulnerability. It’ll take a lot of intentionality because it’s difficult to relate to your spouse’s core vulnerability since it’s not the same as yours. Also, it means you’ll have to step up and be compassionate to your spouse when you least feel like it.

Understanding what your spouse is feeling and why they’re feeling it allows you to speak into their fear or shame and provide reassurance. This shifts the focus of the argument from the what to the why and enables you to have a more authentic and productive outcome. While you can’t avoid fear and shame altogether, you can transform them into an opportunity for connection. 

Do This For Your Wife:

  • Routinely connect with her at these four crucial times during the day:
    • When you wake up in the morning
    • Before you leave for the day
    • When you return for the day
    • Before you go to bed
  • Open your heart and mind to her, let her in. (Be vulnerable and share your feelings.)
  • Appreciate all she does for the home and family. While also doing your share of the household chores

Do This For Your Husband:

  • Have sex regularly. (This is how they feel most connected to you.)
  • Be physically affectionate every day. (A kiss, a hug, a hand massage, a butt slap…)
  • Catch him doing something right! Acknowledge and appreciate what he does for you. If you feel like complaining about something he’s NOT doing or doing “wrong,” remember: Behind every complaint, blame or criticism is a desire. Your husband really does want to please you. So cut to the chase and tell him your desire instead of your complaint:
    • “I love it when you…”
    • “Thank you for…”
    • “It makes me feel supported when you…”
    • “I really appreciate…”

Connection is the Cure

The good news: You won’t need to talk about your feelings if you already feel connected. The Fear/Shame spiral is a sign of disconnection. So if an issue arises when you’re already feeling connected, it’ll be less likely to trigger that fear or shame. The tension can be managed easier, with less hostility and more sensitivity to each other’s vulnerabilities. 

Life is messy, chaotic, and we are not perfect people… which means disconnection is inevitable. But when that fear and shame sneak back into our marriage, I’m confident that we will now recognize it and stop the spiral by reconnecting.

*This blog in its entirety is based on research done by Dr. Pat Love and Dr. Steven Stosny. Their studies are explained in depth in their book, How To Improve Marriage Without Talking About It.

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