Dear Therapist:

Overall, my husband and I—married for ten years with five wonderful children—have [a] beautiful...[relationship]. We have a loving relationship and bring harmony and happiness into our home on a day-to-day basis. The problem is when we have something to work through. When I do something or say something that upsets my husband he totally shuts down and becomes handicapped at communicating. He is not overall an emotional handicapped person at all. When we're in our regular harmonious mode, he is attuned and caring to my emotional needs. But when he is upset with me, he totally turns off and acts completely emotionally unintelligent. I know I should ideally not upset him—a resentful or disrespectful comment or coming late when he is waiting—but I do think the way of the world is that, though we are working toward that ideal, as human beings we aren't perfect and make mistakes and at times do or say things wrong. In my opinion, the basic way to work things through is through communicating, but my husband totally shuts down. At these times I will talk and talk and try and apologize and then eventually get so resentful by how he seems to not care about working things through. (I've read in this column once about stonewalling and think that is what my husband does when he is upset.) When it happens, it's so upsetting to me. I feel like he becomes a different husband, almost indifferent to me. It also makes me feel so insecure in the strength of our marriage, since we have such a hard time working out our "fights" and seem to only be okay when things are great between us. I'm hoping the panelists can help shed light on what I can do with this challenging situation (besides for suggesting therapy!).

 

Response:

It sounds like your husband and you have a generally positive relationship based on genuine caring and sensitivity to one another. You communicate appropriately and support one another. You are able to understand one another’s needs and help each other to properly achieve them.

We all relate and communicate differently. Sometimes these differences can add a positive characteristic to the relationship. As a relationship grows, we can learn and absorb the positive qualities of the other person. This typically leads to closer, more loving relationships.

When there are maladaptive reactions, however, they often lead in one of two directions. They can cause strife and disharmony. Or they can lead to unhealthy co-dependent relationships in which the negative needs of one person are fed and maintained by the other.

As in any relationship, there are at least three aspects to consider. Obviously, the relationship itself and all the factors related to communication are important. It is great to hear that your overall communication and relationship are good and positive. However, the other two aspects can be equally—and at times more—significant. In your case, I am referring to your husband’s emotional reactions that are triggered by you and your emotional reactions triggered by him. You mention that, when triggered, your husband becomes handicapped at communicating, but that generally he is in touch with his emotions and communicative. This points to specific emotional triggers that provoke feelings of insecurity. These, in turn, appear to be causing your husband’s stonewalling defense.

If this occurs every time the two of you need to deal with a problem—and this prevents you from appropriately resolving the problem—the relationship-communication dynamic clearly needs to be addressed.  But even so, your issue seems to largely be related to your emotional reaction to his. And your husband’s issue may largely be related to his emotional reaction to yours. Naturally, this creates a vicious cycle that may not blow over until the particular current issue is resolved.

What bothers you about the fact that your husband shuts down? To bluntly play devil’s advocate, who cares whether your husband stonewalls you? It sounds like this doesn’t happen very often, and that it’s generally triggered by his sense that you don’t properly respect him. Assuming that your husband’s negative reactions are infrequent and short-lived, let him deal with them. Why should you need to become involved with them? In fact, it is likely that your eventual resentfulness prolongs his stonewalling reaction.

Realistically, of course, it is not that simple. Just as your husband cannot “simply” move on when triggered, neither can you. When your husband shuts down, you seem to go from apologetic to resentful. This tells me that you react to your own triggers when your husband shuts down. If your husband’s stonewalling makes you feel hurt, your first instinct seems to be to fix the problem. This would theoretically make you feel less hurt. When that doesn’t work, you join your husband in becoming the injured party, thus leading to feelings similar to his.

Sometimes others’ emotional reactions affect us most when they are similar to our own. Although your husband’s physical reaction is dissimilar to yours, the emotion behind it may be essentially the same. If your husband is deeply hurt when he feels disrespected, this may hurt you more than other triggers—thus leading you to feel disrespected. Ironically, you may both be feeling the same hurtful emotion, but dealing with it in different ways.

Understanding your husband’s triggers and insecurities can help you to place the onus on his needs. Better understanding your own triggers and insecurities can further help you to accept your husband’s reactions without allowing them to trigger your own. This will hopefully break the negative cycle, leading to increased harmony in your marriage and communication.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

 psychotherapist in private practice

 Brooklyn, NY

 author of Self-Esteem: A Primer

 www.ylcsw.com / 718-258-5317