A friend told me recently that her husband always seems to run from any conflict in their marriage. Not literal running, mind you, but when things get intense—especially if she starts crying—he’s heading out the door while all she wants is resolution. She wants him to stay; he needs space and leaves. She feels hurt; he’s done with the conversation. My friend asked me how she can move forward with him when this happens. He’s a great guy but running away when he’s mad seems so unhealthy. And not to mention rude.
In my research for For Women Only, I learned a lot about how men are wired to relate emotionally in relationships. And the way they’re wired is very legitimate; it is often just different from the way we are wired.
But before I jump into this, let me say first: If any man wants to love his wife or his girlfriend well, he should not just walk away from an emotional conversation without notice. Turning and walking away? That is rude. And leaving your wife or girlfriend hanging, and in distress, wondering, “Are we okay?” That is hurtful. But we women sometimes feel like the only reason they walk away is that they are angry with us and simply don’t want to talk because of that.
We couldn’t be more wrong.
Here are 2 main reasons why men walk away from emotional conflict:
Reason #1: His Brain Needs Time
Based on the men surveyed, roughly half of the men essentially said they need time for their brain to process what just happened, what they think about it and how they can respond well. One young man said it well: “In the heat of the moment, I can’t even think straight. My fiancé can win any argument, and can tie me in knots. She runs circles around me with her words, all while I’m trying to figure out what I think. The only way I can think is to get away. If she’ll just let me be for a while I can figure it out and come back and explain. But whenever she insists on talking it out right then, it is usually her talking and me hardly listening because I don’t know what I think yet.”
That type of comment was very common among the men I interviewed. Because the male brain is specifically wired that way. As women, because our brains are wired with certain types of connections, we can process a high degree of emotion and still think clearly. In fact the female brain actually does better at thinking through emotional topics by talking them through. But as my husband, Jeff, puts it, “For most men, emotion furs up the gears.” There are always exceptions, but the male brain usually needs to disengage from an emotional conversation in order to think something through deeply, clearly and productively.
In other words, although there’s certainly a chance that my friend’s husband may indeed be trying to “run” or “escape” in an unhealthy way, since she described him as a great guy I think it is far more likely that he’s just… a guy. With a male brain that is working the way a male brain is designed to work.
Reason #2: He Is Trying To Protect You and the Relationship
Seventy one percent of men in the For Women Only surveys (which were nationally representative) said that the primary reason they walk away from emotional conversations is this: “Because I don’t want to say something in the heat of the moment that I’ll regret later.” A man usually cares for the woman in his life and doesn’t want to hurt her. He is worried that when emotion “furs up the gears,” that he’ll say something that will hurt her. So he makes his escape. Not because he doesn’t care . . . but because he does.
Sure, not every guy will have these altruistic motives. I’m sure there are men who are just grumpy and uncaring. Men who don’t like being challenged. Or are pathological conflict avoiders who damage their relationship because they constantly pull away… and never fully come back once they have processed things through. We can hope that men will put some effort into how they pull away, so that they don’t make their partner’s concern worse. But if we are honoring their wiring – in the same way we want them to honor ours – it is important to avoid ascribing bad motives to their actions without other cause.
The truth is most men do care. And if we start from that assumption, it will be far easier for him to hear and understand when we explain how insecure his withdrawal makes us feel and the benefit of giving us his reassurance (“We’ll be okay”) before he gets the space he needs.
Want to know how to be kind, when you really don’t want to be? Looking for encouragement for your marriage or parenting struggles? Subscribe to updates from Shaunti here!
Shaunti Feldhahn loves sharing eye-opening information that helps people thrive in life and relationships. She herself started out with a Harvard graduate degree and Wall Street credentials but no clue about life. After an unexpected shift into relationship research for average, clueless people like her, she now is a popular speaker and auhjn ,liuetvg6e5trvf7ybgfnbvvnc yjtg thor of best-selling books about men, women and relationships. (Including For Women Only, For Men Only, and the groundbreaking The Good News About Marriage).
Her newest book, The Kindness Challenge demonstrates that kindness is the answer to pretty much every life problem, and is sparking a much-needed movement of kindness across the country. Visit www.shaunti.com for more.
In middle school I saw a young man arguing with his girlfriend. At one point the argument blew up. He tensed, then turned and punched the cinder block wall next to him as hard as he could. He broke quite a few bones in his hand, his wrist, and his forearm and was in a cast for months. Asking him about it later, he said “I really needed to punch something but didn’t want to punch her because I loved her”.
I have told this story to men dozens of time in the years since, and the four responses have been almost identical each time.
1) That was dumb.
2) Punching sometimes feels like a very logical fix to a man. (You see this trope often in movies (or reality) – the malfunctioning equipment starts working after beating it).
3) It was not the worst choice he could have made, which would have been to punch his girlfriend.
4) It was not the best choice he could have made, which would have been to turn and walk away.
Every single time I tell this story, the “best choice” he could have made (as prescribed by other men) is to just turn and walk away. Every. Single. Time.
Turning away from an argument may not only be preventing *saying* something that they regret later, it may also be preventing *doing* something that they regret later.
Sounds perfectly logical to me.
Emotional high = need for release.
Need for release =/= location, short time frame, immediate human need constraints.
He made the most effective resolution both in the moment and to keep himself stable well past it.
Regardless of what happened with the relationship, he sounds more patient and mature than most people at a younger age.
Pretty cool story bro.
Thanks so much for this article. I need to read this right at this moment. My boyfriend literally just walked out because of a conflict. He said we would discuss it after he has time to process which I thought was just an excuse. Now I know lol!