Men, Criticism, and Shame – The Perfect Storm
- Why does my husband feel attacked when I ask him normal questions?
- Why is he so defensive when I want to talk about money?
- Why does he leave, shut-down, or rage when we argue?
- Why doesn’t he pursue me romantically anymore?
- Why doesn’t he lead our family like he’s supposed to?
Here are some pretty typical questions women ask men and some pretty general things men “hear” when they say them.
Women – “I’m going to the store, how much money do we have in our checking account?”
Men – Often hear, “I doubt you are able to provide for us,” “I can’t trust the way you handle our finances,” or “Are you wasting your time again?” i.e. “You are a failure.”
Women – “Hey, what did you do today?”
Men – Often hear, “you probably aren’t spending your time productively…therefore, you probably are failing to perform to my expectations
and you’re not providing for us to your optimum level!” i.e. “you must be doing something wrong, you are lazy, and I think you are a failure at being a provider.”
Women – “Are we going to be able to go on a vacation this year?”
Men – Often hear, “do you know what you’re doing? Have you saved enough money so we can have a vacation or have you failed at providing for us again this year?” i.e. “I think you are incompetent and a failure!”
Women – “I am going to need your help with the kids or dishes when you get home tonight?”
Men – Often hear, “I usually can’t count on you…are you going to be an incompetent father or husband again today?” i.e. “you are usually a bad husband and father again!…i.e. you are a failure…yet again!”
Women often ask, “So, what’s up with men? Why are they so sensitive to criticism? I ask the simplest questions and you would think I had challenged him to a dual. So, are women just supposed to be quiet and not ever ask men questions? How are we ever supposed to talk to them about issues if he hears everything as criticism?”
Here’s the deal: the emotional differences between men and women are profound! I can only generalize what most men and women do and feel. There’s always the exception when the man and woman reverse the typical emotional roles. It is important to know that those whose emotional tendencies are opposite of the norm are not awkward or unhealthy. They are just different than the average.
Women seem to have different reactions to the scenarios above about how men feel criticized or threatened by women. Some women are just plain angry with men for taking it that way. Others go to a place of guilt and/or shame themselves because they never would have wanted to communicate criticism or been a threat. Many women are just asking a face-value question. Still others will admit that they know exactly what they’re doing and sometimes use shameful words to manipulate their man. I have heard all three confessions from women on more than one occasion. It has been my experience that the vast majority of women are not trying to send their man to a place of shame; they just want or need to know information. For example, the woman asking, “how much money do we have in our checking account” before she goes shopping probably just wants to make sure she doesn’t bounce a check and that she can buy groceries for her family. It’s really not her fault that her husband feels criticized and threatened by her questions. But, it sure gets all over her when he does and it makes it a difficult environment in which to ask questions and navigate life together when you can’t talk about certain topics without a painful interaction.
Garden Variety Shame
For a better understanding of the dynamics between men and women, let’s go back to the Garden of Eden. First, Adam and Eve were in the garden and the bible tells us that they were “…both naked and were not ashamed.” When they ate of the forbidden fruit, they covered themselves with fig leaves because they were aware and ashamed that they were naked. When God asked Adam where he was, the bible says that Adam was afraid and hid himself. I believe that day, Fear and Shame entered our world and men have been hiding in one way or another ever since. If a man loses his job, he goes to shame; If you ask, “why don’t we have…” man goes to a place of shame; If you are unhappy, men often go to a place of shame. Basically, if his adequacy or role as a man are questioned, he goes to a place of shame. If he fails in almost any area and he is not measuring up to what a man “should be,” he goes to a place of shame…and I believe he hides (isolates) like he did in the garden. So I don’t think any amount of talking will change the dynamics, but there are ways to have healthier conversations in spite of this dynamic.
How to use man’s places of shame to heal your marriage. There are numerous areas in which men experience shame. Here are some of the more prevalent ones.
A man needs to know that he’s a great:
- Godly man
To help you change your perspective of your husband, quit thinking of him as a grown man who “should” be above such things. Rather, think of him as a 6-year-old little boy stuck in a grown man’s body with the daunting expectations and responsibilities of a grown man. Further, think of him as a 6-year-old boy in a man’s body who is “supposed” to know what he wants to do when he grows up, how to be successful, and how to solve your marital problems. Surely you know by now that this is not happening. Most men are not taught how to express their feelings, fix marriages, make you happy, resolve conflicts lovingly, read your mind, take hints, or meet and exceed your expectations. Most men are taught at an early age some of the following messages:
- “Don’t cry”
- “Be a man”
- “Showing emotions is a sign of weakness”
- “Grow up”
- “Don’t complain”
- “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps”
- “Get up boy; you’re not really hurt.”
So, men, who are taught that being in touch with their feelings is a mistake and makes them less of a man, rarely know what they are feeling and certainly don’t feel the freedom to express it if they do. They just don’t believe they can both express their feelings and be a man at the same time! Quite frankly, most men are scared to death of failing and the fear of failure and fear of rejection is debilitating to them. Since fear usually leads to control in areas of self-protection, when a man is emotionally shamed and off balance it is doubtful that you will see healthy relationship patterns. Men, when afraid, usually isolate and pull away from meaningful relationships to protect themselves and process the situation.
But, you don’t have to be stuck walking on eggshells around your husband because he both can’t express his feelings and is allergic to anything that feels like criticism. You can take the same list: Father, Lover, Husband, Provider, Protector, Godly man, and Leader and use it to build up and nurture your husband. Why should you do that when he’s been treating you so poorly lately? Because he needs it, he’ll feel better about himself if you do, he’ll probably be happier and will treat you better if you do, and most importantly, for your marriage to get healthier, someone needs to start the cycle of nurturance. Surely you’re tired of the negative feelings, words, and patterns your marriage has evolved into! In counseling, I usually see dramatic changes happen when one partner begins treating the other valuably. Sometimes it’s almost instant and sometimes it takes a while. But, we all want to be loved and in a relationship that is safe and secure. Chances are both of you don’t feel safe with each other anymore.
This is not about manipulation or faking it. But, I’d like you to think of something off the list of Father, Lover, Husband, Provider, Protector, Godly man, and Leader that your husband is doing well and compliment him in that area. Don’t make something up; find something that’s real. For example, comment sometime tonight to your husband how much you appreciate how hard he works and how he takes such good care of you and the kids. Or, think back over your earlier years and tell him that you have good memories of the time you went on a vacation. The goal is to begin focusing more on what has done well and communicating that to him, not on what you think he’s doing poorly now. If you are disappointed in him, I can almost guarantee you that he both knows it and is reacting to it.
Act like you did when you were dating
Remember back when you were first dating. You both had found the person of your dreams that you wanted to spend the rest of your life being with. You both felt safe with each other and talked a lot about hopes and dreams. Few people marry someone they don’t feel safe with. During the course of your marriage each of you have both hurt and been hurt by each other and the “I won’t ever be hurt like that again” syndrome settles in. If you don’t have a great way to resolve conflicts in a way that is both loving and caring, the hurts usually turn into resentments and the resentments stack up like bricks on the “wall of resentment” that many people have built up to protect them and their hearts from being hurt. The distance that is caused by pulling away like that causes your partner who is also probably hurt to pull away, too. Or, when your partner feels the distance from you pulling away, he likely doesn’t know how to reconnect with you and resolve the hurt or miscommunication. So, it’s common for him to feel like a failure at keeping you happyn and go to a place of shame! (Complicated, huh?) You can end up with a standoff before you know it and the wonderful hopes and dreams of safety, romance, and happiness are a thing of the past and many relationships start the downward spiral to marriage dissatisfaction. It doesn’t have to end that way. But, someone will have to take the first step toward being brave and vulnerable to start the cycle of apology, nurturance, forgiveness, or affirmation.
It feels great to know you matter!
Unless your relationship is one of physical abuse and you live in an unsafe environment, I would encourage you to move toward your spouse in a way that risks again. We can’t live to protect our heart from being hurt again and have meaningful relationships at the same time. Relationships hurt, but they can be so rewarding when you both rediscover that you are with the one who can love you well. It’s worth the effort. I get the wonderful opportunity to help couples repair their broken relationships. When couples decide to roll up their sleeves, swallow their pride, and move toward their spouse again in humility, compassion, and forgiveness, things usually change. God moves toward us everyday. Ask God to give you the grace to forgive your spouse and to walk in the compassion and humility that He extends to us everyday. It is amazing to see what can happen when each partner starts treating the other in a way that communicates that they matter and their hurts, thoughts, fears, ideas, opinions, and dreams matter, too!