As a newlywed, Terri stumbled across an aspect of marriage that she just couldn’t figure out. Well, actually, it was really her new husband Wade that she couldn’t figure out.
Terri is a curious person; she likes to ask questions and talk things through. Wade always seemed to love that about her. But a few months into marriage, he seemed to get more and more annoyed by it. When Terri would try to brainstorm lots of different options for the upcoming vacation he was planning, or talk through alternatives for a particular decision, he would shut down.
It came to a head when the transmission in their car died. They needed to decide whether to replace it or buy a new vehicle. A day later, Wade said, “I think there are years of life in the car; let’s replace it and keep going.” Terri said, “Okay, but let’s look at what the car guides say about whether a new transmission is worth it. And maybe you should ask Franklin (a friend from church who was a mechanic) what he thinks?”
“Fine, you do that. I’ll let you handle it from here.” Wade walked out of the room, his face tight.
“What did I say?” Terri thought. I was just trying to help! Then she started to get mad. Am I not allowed to provide input or ask questions when decisions need to be made, without him getting all upset? If he wants a doormat wife, he picked the wrong woman!
If you’ve ever seen your man shut down when you think you’re just asking questions or giving helpful advice, here’s some of what might be going on—and some ideas for what to do about it.
A man’s shift into anger or withdrawal often signals that he is feeling a specific emotional pain
Let’s start with what’s likely under the surface when we see our man shut down in general. Consider these two truths, that we’ve repeatedly seen from interviews and surveys with more than 20,000 men and boys over the last 17 years.
- One of the most painful feelings for a guy is the sense that someone thinks he’s inadequate: that someone has looked at what he has said or done and concluded he didn’t do it right. It might sound crazy to us as women, but when a guy feels like he didn’t do something right in the eyes of others, it makes him feel like a complete idiot.
- When a guy feels like an idiot, he will often get angry and shut down.
In other words, when a guy walks out of the room with his face tight and says “fine, you handle it,” it’s a giant clue. Something has probably made him feel like an idiot. Even though his wife would presumably have never wanted him to feel that way!
So now to our specific example: why on earth might simple questions cause our man to feel like an idiot? There are two main reasons why. One emotional and one biological.
The emotional reason: Inquisitiveness can feel like The Inquisition
From personal experience (ahem) this is the heart of what confuses many of us. Why does our man get upset when we are just trying to help? We are just trying to have a mutual discussion, ask questions and share feedback, and he reacts as if he’s been attacked.
Well, it’s because even though we don’t think we are attacking, he feels attacked.
There are a lot of different reasons for this (see For Women Only for more), including that our man has a deep desire to be competent at what he does, and a sincere motivation to please us in the process—combined with a deep self-doubt and vulnerability about whether he’s any good at any of it. He’s trying his best, but is nervous that his best isn’t good enough. And because he has that raw nerve under the surface, it is all too easy for him to hear “questions” as “challenges.” So suggestions we think of as harmless (“how about asking XYZ mechanic friend for advice?”) can be heard as implying incompetence (“You need help because you clearly can’t figure it out on your own.”)
Similarly, what we think of as benign requests for information (“Isn’t ABC hotel more expensive than we can afford for vacation?” “Did you ask about whether we can get a refund on the zipline if it rains?”) can be heard as second-guessing his judgment. (And if we are honest with ourselves, sometimes it is.)
Bottom line, our man deeply wants us to trust and believe in him, as a signal that he is worth being trusted and believed in. And yet, a spate of questions and suggestions can essentially “confirm” his fears that he isn’t. Now, thankfully, that doesn’t mean he wants a “yes, dear” doormat (good thing, because I don’t know too many doormat wives!) but it does mean there are some very specific things to keep in mind, if we want a great relationship. (More on that in a moment.)
The irony of all this, is that this painful emotional factor might not ever be triggered were it not for the biological factor.
The biological reason: Someone with an internal process of decision making will likely feel questioned by someone with a verbal process of decision-making
Although this is not the case for every guy, the male brain in general is wired to process things internally before talking about it. Which means by the time a guy says anything (“Let’s fix the transmission and keep the car”), he most likely has spent quite some time thinking it through in detail. In his mind, this is a conclusion; a decision with a lot of thought behind it. He may not always be 100% confident in his decision (see Emotional Reason above!) but in his mind, it is an actual decision.
The problem, of course, is that most women (although, again, not all) are verbal processors, which means that a verbal statement is not a conclusion or decision. Instead, it signals the beginning of a conversation that is a crucial part of thinking things through in order to make a decision.
You can see the train wreck coming, can’t you?
When our man says, “Let’s fix the transmission,” he is conveying a decision into which he put some serious thought. But that announcement is the first we have heard about it! So we ask questions and raise all sorts of issues, because that is how we move our thinking along and eventually reach a thorough decision. Yet for him, our spontaneous verbal feedback can easily come across as “picking something apart.”
More dangerously, because we sometimes casually throw around language like, “Well that’s silly, we should just do it this way,” we can, without meaning to, tell him that after a full day of thinking something through, his conclusion was “silly.”
Either way, he feels disrespected and inadequate. It is painful. And that is why he gets upset and shifts into silent mode.
So what’s the answer? If you are a verbal processor and an inquisitive person, what will allow you to be yourself and ask the questions that you need to ask, without feeling like you are always walking on eggshells—or are at risk of hurting your man.
Let him know you need to “Think out loud”—but try to affirm his thoughts first
The most important starting point is to help your husband understand how you need to process things. At a non-emotional time (not when you’re in the middle of an intense discussion), explain that when you hear his conclusions for the first time, you need to discuss them in order to think about them. Let him know that when you ask questions or throw out alternatives you are in no way picking his suggestion apart, but simply thinking it through externally in the way he has already thought it through internally.
So from then on, once he hears you say, “I just need to think out loud for a minute,” it is on him to believe that that is what you are doing and set aside any potential knee-jerk negative emotion that might arise from it.
But if you want to be sensitive to your man’s vulnerabilities, it is on you to do that in a way that is respectful of the thought he has put in. And one key way to do that is to affirmhim before you start processing. So when your husband says, “Let’s do this,” instead of starting to ask the first thing that comes to your mind, consider always saying something like, “Oh, that’s an interesting idea” or “Thanks for tackling that,” and talking through one or two positive points about his idea before asking questions. This will help signal, right up front, that you aren’t second-guessing him. Then you can say, “I need to think out loud for a minute. You cool with that?”
One caution: if you find yourself rolling your eyes about the idea that he is “so oversensitive” that he needs his ego stroked, you’ve missed the crucial emotional point underneath it all. Remember, he doesn’t have an ego in the way you think: He wants to do well but has a deep self-doubt. Just as we want our man to be aware of and tender with our own vulnerabilities, this is our chance to do the same for him.
As you can tell, navigating all of this is about mutual respect. Him respecting your need for curiosity and verbal processing, and you respecting his desire to do well by you. We just have to start with recognizing how the other person sees it. So give it a try, have some conversation do-overs if you need to, and enjoy the benefits that come from a greater understanding of each other.
This article was also published at Patheos.
Check out our online resource for Shaunti’s research and teachings: SurprisingHope.com.
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