When You Criticize and He Withdraws, This is What’s Really Happening

According to Deborah, her husband Marcus has an anger problem, and she doesn’t know how to handle it. They’ve always had “intense discussions,” but lately he’s been getting furious and walking away. As she tells it, they recently got into a fight on their way out of a restaurant, just because she told him that he shouldn’t have eaten so much, and he definitely shouldn’t have had dessert. He actually walked away and left her standing at the door—if she hadn’t had her keys with her, she would have been stranded! To Deborah, Marcus seems like a little kid who can’t handle criticism and throws a tantrum.

Does this scenario ring true—even a bit—for you? Like Marcus, does your man pull away, exit the situation, or leave you in the lurch when you’re having a conflict? Maybe you wish he would “grow up” and handle his anger better. Let me gently ask: have you ever considered that maybe, just maybe, it isn’t only your husband who needs to handle things better? I’m not saying you—or Deborah—are to blame, but while you’re thinking that your man needs some Anger Management 101, it might be helpful to examine why he’s getting so angry. A lot of women don’t realize that a man’s anger is often very legitimate: an outward signal of very real internal pain.

Anger Is Often A Man’s Way Of Expressing His Hurt.

In my research, I’ve seen that anger for men is like crying for women. When we’re hurt, we women often find tears leaking down our cheeks—and we want to be able to cry without being judged for the tears. In a similar way, anger is often a man’s signal of being hurt—and they don’t want to be judged, either.

What “hurts” our big, strong men? Well, underneath that outward strength they often have a soft heart and a deep need to be respected. So what hurts, usually, is the feeling that he’s being disrespected by those he most cares about. In my surveys, more than 80% of men agreed that this was the source of their anger during a fight with their wives. Above all, a man wants to measure up in her eyes. And it is excruciating when he feels that she’s saying, instead, “you’re inadequate” or “you failed.” Or, even, “grow up.”

Withdrawal Can Be A Sign That Your Man Is Trying To Handle His Anger Well.

Here’s what often happens next. In response to that intense hurt, intense anger rears up and a man wants to punch something. But because he loves his wife, he has to control his anger. He knows that beyond a certain point, unleashing it in words or actions would be damaging, hurtful, and unhealthy. So the only thing he can do in that moment of fury is to get as much distance as possible, so that he doesn’t handle it poorly.

In other words: when your husband withdraws, exits the situation, or even leaves you in the lurch during a conflict, he’s probably doing it in order to process his anger in a better way than his initial instincts would lead him to. Getting some time and space between him and the situation (or between him and you) gives him the opportunity to regain control and approach the issue with more calmness and self-control.

Anger Itself Isn’t Always Wrong.

Does that mean Deborah’s husband was right to leave her at the restaurant? Does that mean your husband always handles his anger well? Not necessarily. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that the anger itself is wrong, either. Let me bring in a biblical perspective for a second. The bible says “in your anger do not sin.” It doesn’t say anger itself is a sin. There certainly is inappropriate anger, and any man who verbally or physically abuses his wife needs intervention, fast. But that isn’t usually the case.

Many wives don’t realize that their husband—like most men—interprets their critical comments as implying “you’ve failed.” They don’t realize that he probably feels humiliated. Well, now you know. And now you know that when you see anger on his part, it’s a signal of legitimate hurt.

Be Sensitive To What Causes Your Husband Pain.

Since you undoubtedly care about your husband, you need to learn what is legitimately painful to him—just like you want him to understand that his anger and withdrawal is painful for you. Hopefully, you can develop ways to raise sensitive issues in the right way and at the right time, in a way that won’t hurt your man.

And if you do have an argument, and you’re feeling hurt as well, perhaps this new knowledge will help you learn how to respond in a way that brings you closer together. After all, when things get heated, and our own female pain runs high, our faces and voices can signal even more disrespect. Maybe your voice gets higher and more staccato, or your facial expression changes. Maybe your words became guided missiles aimed at a vulnerable target: your husband’s surprisingly soft heart.

Give Your Man Room To Be Human.

So the next time anger arises, think about how you’re coming across. Take some deep breaths to bring your voice back into normal range. Maybe take a break from the discussion until you can respond well. Start with a respectful tone and words. If appropriate, apologize (“Honey, I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking about how that might embarrass you.”). And it will begin to heal the wounds if you find a way to affirm your respect and appreciation for him.

Once we learn to see our man’s anger as a sign of pain—and not the tantrum of a little kid, as Deborah saw it—the way we view the situation is transformed. We certainly can’t accept abusive anger. But otherwise, let’s give our men room to be human; specifically, room to be male.

Looking for encouragement for your life and relationships? Learn about the little things that make a big difference in every relationship, from marriages to parenting. 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 people like her, she now is a popular speaker and author 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 latest book, Find Rest: A Women’s Devotional for Lasting Peace in Busy Life, focuses on a journey to rest even with life’s constant demands.

Visit www.shaunti.com for more.

This post was first published at Patheos.

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  1. This is a no-brainer. If this example is typical of this couple, he doesn’t have anger issues. She has control issues. She’s not being his wife, she’s trying to be his mommy. Criticizing him about his eating (or anything else that he’s surely already aware of) is a knife stab to the heart. Doing it in public is a knife stab to the heart through the back and then turning the blade.

    I read an article by a Christian father who disciplines his sons differently from his daughters. He looks his girls in the eye while they are discussing the problem and the punishment, because they want assurance of Dad’s love . His boys won’t look him in the eye, and he won’t force them to, until they know that even though they’re being punished, Dad still loves them. Once they know that, even though a stiff punishment has been handed down, they can look him in the eye again.

    The worst thing for a guy to experience is shame. We men already feel shame over something. Don’t rub salt in the wound by shaming us publicly.

    A man who gets his heart hurt in this way will react in anger, where he blows up, or in withdrawal, where he begins to harden his heart to the shamer. He is going to become less and less vulnerable to that person, the more so by how much he loves that person. This happened between my dad and myself. Enough hurt, already! So I became distant. In your example, that’s what Marcus is doing, and if Deborah does this all the time, she’s losing him fast.

    1. Reverse the the role. There is a thin line between control and criticism. Men show their displeasure through their attempt to control and dominate. Example: He sat impatiently waiting in the car for you and the kids. He yells and yells, “let’s go,” while you are putting on lipstick and combing the hair on three kids. You get scowls, dirty looks and the silent treatment for the next three hour. I’m sick of articles that promote pity parties for men.

      1. Gina, you are throwing around a lot of generalizations about mens’ behavior that weren’t discussed by the OP or Bob. There is no way you should project those behaviors onto Marcus. We are getting a slice of an argument that a single couple had. The OP is just providing some insight into why that behavior occurred. Nobody is asking anybody to pity men generally here.

        1. That is not true. She is just telling you and the other man, that men always whine when women point out your problem. If a husband can’t take criticism, he may need counseling.

  2. Reverse the the role. There is a thin line between control and criticism. Men show their displeasure through their attempt to control and dominate. Example: He sat impatiently waiting in the car for you and the kids. He yells and yells, “let’s go,” while you are putting on lipstick and combing the hair on three kids. You get scowls, dirty looks and the silent treatment for the next three hour. I’m sick of articles that promote pity parties for men.

  3. This article had some good info but the condescension was distracting (maybe, just maybe, etc). No need for that; just say it.

  4. This is a load of garbage. Men get upset by criticism? You know who else gets angry at criticism? My toddler who I tell them they have to clean up the juice they spilled. Grow up and handle your emotions like an adult.

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