It’s difficult for me to remember the early days of my relationship with Mr. Strong and Silent. After all, I’ve known him for 12 years. More important, the vast majority of my memories were wiped out during the two sleepless years after our daughter was born.
Still, I believe, in those early days, I incessantly asked him two questions that he was never able to answer:
Question #1: What are you thinking?
Question #2: How do you feel?
His answer to the first was always either, “Nothing” or “I don’t know.” The second? Exactly the same as the first, assuming he didn’t walk away or change the topic.
He didn’t like to talk about his past. He didn’t like to talk about his emotions. He didn’t want to talk about his day at work. He didn’t like to talk about anything other than the breaking news: something he’d read in the newspaper, what was going to be on television that night, where and how long he’d ridden his bike, and, perhaps, what he wanted to do that weekend.
STRONG AND SILENT VS. STRONG AND SECRETIVE
This unnerved me. I was convinced that his inability to talk meant that he was hiding something. What deep dark secrets did he not want me to know about? Was he afraid to be himself in front of me? Didn’t he know that it was okay to cry or show fear? Was he completely out of touch with his feelings?
We dated for a year, lived together for two years, and then got married. Eventually I stopped asking him about his thoughts or emotions. When we talked, we talked. When we didn’t, we didn’t.
Until things got really bad and we stopped talking altogether. We’d go out to dinner on date night. From the moment we sat down at a table to the moment we walked out the door, our entire conversation was limited to:
“It’s nice to go out to eat.”
“What are you going to get?”
“I don’t know.”
“What are you going to get?”
“I think I’ll have the fish.”
“How was your day?”
“Fine, what about yours?”
“Want some of this?”
“Okay. Want some of this?”
“How was your meal?”
“I’m really tired.”
“That was nice.”
“Yeah, let’s do this again.”
I would stare at him as he ate. I would try to think of a question I could ask that would elicit anything other than a one-word response.
Eventually I stopped trying, and we became two people who lived in the same house, parented the same child, and slept in the same bed, but who did not share a common conversation.
That is, until we started working on our marriage.
It wasn’t until a few months into our marriage project that we found ourselves back where we had started. I asked him about his thoughts and feelings. He told me they were non-existent. I didn’t believe him and felt frustrated. He sensed my frustration and grew tense. I sensed his tension and got hurt. He sensed my pain and turned on the TV.
Eventually, I gave up—yet again. But this time I gave up for a different reason. I gave up because I realized it really didn’t matter how he felt. If he didn’t want to talk about his feelings, then okay. The man didn’t have feelings. Was this such a bad thing?
TALKING MAKES THINGS WORSE?
More recently I read an article that suggested I was doing exactly the right thing. In it Dr. Patricia Love was quoted as saying, “The number one myth about relationships is that talking helps. The truth is, more often than not, it makes things worse.”
Are you thinking, “Um, what? Blasphemy”? That’s exactly what I was thinking! So I read more of the article. She explained that women feel calmer when they talk about their feelings. A woman has a bad day at work? She can’t wait to find someone to talk to about it.
A man, on the other hand, has a bad day and can’t wait to forget about it. Asking him about his bad day (or about his mother’s illness, or about any number of touchy topics) does the opposite of what you intend. Rather than making him feel loved and comforted, it just reminds him of his failings. His muscles tense up. If he allowed himself to actually put a word to this sensation, he might describe this discomfort as feeling, “Stressed out.”
And then, to reduce the growing tension he’ll shut down. If he’s like my husband, he will, for instance:
• Change the subject.
• Decide that he absolutely needs to do a load of laundry that very second.
• Turn on the TV. If it’s already on, change the channel or turn up the volume.
According to experts, this is all normal behavior. According to the experts, the vast majority of men don’t do feelings, and we should all just accept this and get over it. (And, yes, of course there are men out there who do not shut down, who like to talk about anything and everything, and who do feelings as effortlessly as they operate a nail gun. These are not Strong and Silent men or the topic of this blog).
Now, here’s the problem with all of this: normal isn’t always good or desirable. Sometimes we really do need our men to talk. For example, my husband used to work weekends. Earlier this year, I gave him an ultimatum. I told him I not only needed, but also required him to take a day off each weekend. I said I could not continue to be the only parent two days in a row. He agreed. Now he takes one day off every weekend.
More recently, I’ve been feeling that I’d like him to take both days off. I debated how to bring up the subject, however, because the issue of his work hours has been an ongoing stress on our relationship. He doesn’t like to talk about work. He never has. He always gives me the same excuse, “When I’m not at work, I don’t want to think about work.” I always come back with the same argument, “I can’t talk to you about work while you are at work, otherwise we’ll be arguing in front of all of your customers. If I can’t talk to you about it while you are at work and I can’t talk to you about it when you are not at work, when can I talk to you about it?”
The answer, of course, is never, but that’s not an option. Sometimes his work affects our marriage and, when that happens, we need to talk about it.
So this is what I did. I brought up the topic when I was feeling my happiest, to prevent him from absorbing a single atom of stress from the tone of my voice. I did nearly all of the talking, too. I did it while we were sitting on a couch, me drinking tea, him reading the paper, our daughter playing nearby. I made not a single glance of eye contact.
I said, “I really love when we spend time together as a family. The day you are home on the weekend is my favorite day of the week. Kaarina seems so much happier when we are both here at the same time. I love eating breakfast together as a family. Do you think it would be possible in the near future to hire a weekend person at the store so you could possibly take both weekend days off?”
He said, “Yes.” I smiled. He smiled. We hugged.
He was happy (not that he would have ever described himself as happy.) I was happy.
We did not talk about feelings. He didn’t say more than one word. Yet, we solved a problem and grew closer in the process.
So, back to that original question, “Do men have feelings?” I don’t know about most men. I’ll only speak for my husband. I think he has feelings. I don’t think he will ever want to talk about them. You know what? That’s okay with me. It really is.
TODAY’S PROJECT POINTERS
• Discuss relationship issues when you are both calm. You’ll get nowhere if you try to solve a problem when you are already fighting. Do it while you are otherwise having a good time.
• It’s easier to get a Strong and Silent man to talk if he’s not also making eye contact. Talk about things while you are walking, furniture shopping, or sitting in the car or in front of the TV.
• Just solve the problem. Say what’s wrong and offer one or two possible solutions. You can say how YOU feel about the situation, but use non-blaming language such as, “I’m so exhausted” or “I’m really sad about this.” Don’t blame him for the problem. Yeah, it might be his fault, but telling him this will not move the conversation forward. Rather, as soon as you move into the blame game, he’s going to shut down. Stay focused on the solution.
A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.