In a previous article (Relationship Help for Men), I described how some men react angrily when their spouse/partner is emotionally upset—and how this anger is a defensive reaction to feeling helplessness in the face of a loved one’s distress. The sequence of events and reactions might look something like:
A wife is clearly upset and sad about how, for example, a coworker treated her ==>
In listening to her recount what happened, her husband wishes he could stop her pain (and he may make attempts to alleviate her distress by offering what he sees as potential solutions) ==>
Unable to resolve her distress, he starts to feel helpless and ineffectual as a husband/partner ==>
His attempted “solutions” miss the mark and create distance between them==>
Unsettled by feeling powerless, his helplessness is transformed into anger and frustration.
This sequence of emotional events is often rapid and many men report that they are unaware that they felt helpless prior to becoming annoyed in response to their spouse’s/partner’s distress. They are, however, at least partially aware that they are feeling anger and frustration (though they are not aware of the true source of the anger). Some men may generically describe their anger as “stress” rather than labeling it as a specific emotion, but their reactions clearly involve anger/frustration.
Who Or What Is Making Me Feel this Way?!
People like to make sense of the events and experiences in their lives, including their emotional reactions. Once conscious of a particular feeling, we often try to understand the “why” of a feeling—that is, we try to explain to ourselves (and, possibly, others) why we are having a particular reaction or experience. In our search to explain our feelings, the tendency is to look outside ourselves for external causes (“You’re making me angry!”), rather than looking inward and examining our particular quirks and vulnerabilities (“I’m feeling angry because I hate feeling out of control and weak”).
Too often the conclusion is automatically reached that some event or person in our life is the culprit of our unwelcome feelings—once this conclusion is reached, we seldom see the need for self-examination or to take ownership of our reactions; after all, in that moment we see ourselves as the victims of others who negatively impact our lives.
And in the case of men feeling frustration-anger as a way to cover up feelings of helplessness- vulnerability, some men conclude (ironically) that their anger is somehow caused by their wife/partner. To find justification for their anger, men must conclude that their wives are somehow being:
1) Unreasonable (“You shouldn’t be feeling that way”; “Your reaction doesn’t make sense to me, so it must be wrong”);
2) Over-reacting (“Enough already, it’s not that big of a deal”; “You always work yourself up so much”).
These possible explanations give men justification for their anger—it helps them make sense of their discomfort and frustration. It also, and most importantly, ends up invalidating and alienating their spouse/partner and it prevents men from connecting with and understanding the real source of their anger (their own feelings of helplessness while witnessing their partner’s pain).
In my marriage and couples counseling practice, I see this pattern playing out over and over again—and when left unchecked, an entrenched negative cycle of interactions that has devastating repercussions for one’s marriage/relationship festers.
Relationship Help for Men: So What’s the Antidote?
I’ve had more than a few men roll their eyes when I suggest the following:
Men must learn to embrace (yes, embrace) their own helplessness and vulnerabilities if they want to be fully available and emotionally present for their spouses/partners. When men disconnect and flee from their own emotional experiences, they ultimately abandon the possibility of connecting emotionally with their loved ones.
Men fail to recognize an important distinction: Feeling helpless is not the same as being helpless.
The idea of helplessness implies that as a man, you should be doing something you’re not doing—that some sort of action is imperative. For too many men, mobilization (actions designed to help alleviate another’s distress but that inadvertently contribute to poor listening and unempathetic responses) is the sine qua non for dealing with the feelings of loved ones. Too often these actions (the male solution) can exacerbate the very distress they are designed to alleviate.
Once men learn to sit with and tolerate their feelings of helplessness, they open themselves up emotionally and pave the way to truly seeing and hearing what their spouses/partners need, rather than automatically and reactively responding because of their own discomfort with feelings.
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Wishing you a loving and rewarding relationship,
Dr. Rich Nicastro