Warning: some adult language follows.
First, you need to know that this is not exclusively a man problem. Your gender probably doesn't predict that you'll be more or less likely to shut down during conflict or intimacy. There's probably research on this, but I'm too lazy to find it this morning.
In my experience, men tend to do this more often, but it's because we're raised that way rather than born that way.
I'm writing about men in this post because I want to talk about some specific reasons men tend to disengage from intimate conflict. When men shut down, stonewall or walk away - to their partners it feels like abandonment, a lack of caring or apathy.
But for the most part, nothing could be farther from the truth.
By the end of this post, I hope to convince you that the reason men are first to shut down is precisely because they care. I know it seems backwards, but hang in there with me.
First, there's something you should know about how society impacts male psychology. Middle class white men are told from their first breath that they can conquer the world. Messages about our potential vary across ethnicities. African American men, for example, are prepared by their mothers, grandmothers, fathers, uncles and aunts for hostility in the world. And for good reason.
Nonetheless, all men receive the message that they can and should possess the world.
We internalize subtle messages across the course of lives that we must be successful, strong and impenetrable. We are stoic, powerful, sexual and emotionless. More than anything, we are competent.
We have the solutions. We have the answers. Or at least, we better. If we don't, it's a big problem for us. Author Brene Brown tells a story about what motivated her to study how men experience shame:
Our entire lives, we're told to be hard. We're told to sit on our white horses. We're told that to be a man means that we must be unaffected by the world. This, unfortunately, not only has a terrible impact on our emotional development, but on the emotional well-being of our future partners.
We aren't taught - as many women are - how to be competent in intimate relationships. Boys don't cry, after all. We don't know that empathy is a solution to many problems. We only know that we must win to survive.
We live by the three "F's": fight, fuck or fail.
Forgive my crude language, but it's the only way I know how to get the point across.
We solve problems through violence or aggression. Always have. Why do you think UFC is so popular? It's an exercise in male competence and ego.
For most of us, the modern day battlefield takes place in corporate America. Thank God women entered the public workforce because men have been forced to increase emotional intelligence rather than solve every problem like Don Draper.
Our value comes from sex (as much of it as we can). If we're not having sex, we're not men. Sometimes our libido drops because we're afraid we won't be able to have sex how we want, so we shut down. And for the most part, male sexuality has been maligned and cast aside as a perversion.
Since we're not well equipped to talk about our feelings, we have no idea what do about this. Most of us struggle to ask (rather than demand) for the kind of sex we want - or we hear our partners' requests for a different kind of sex as a judgment on our performance.
Which brings me to the third "F".
If we're not fighting or fucking successfully, we're failing. And when we fail, we try harder to fight (we get aggressive) or we try to soothe ourselves through sex.
When those don't work, we are at serious risk of an identity crisis.
At some point, we become adults when these strange creatures called our lovers enter our lives. The demands for closeness, intimacy and connection are difficult. We are mystified and perplexed by the new "F" that we're suddenly expected to know how to deal with.
No. No, no, no. Feel = weak.
Feel is just another word for fail.
We've never been taught how to deal with this "F." We've always channeled our emotion through sex, ambition or action. So when, as adults, our partners demand that we know how to feel, we resort to what we always do when we don't know what to do.
And to you, this will look like abandonment.
Because the generations before us haven't equipped us to be empathetic. When you're telling us something that bothers you about us and we disagree, we don't know how to listen to you and validate your emotion. We simply try to solve the problem and if that doesn't work adequately, then we get defensive. Angry. Careless. Maybe even abusive.
That's on us. Not you. Aggression is not excused by incompetence.
We go through this cycle until it spins out of control. We tell ourselves that nothing will work and we might as well give up. We give up because the last thing we want to do is expose our incompetence.
We don't want to make things worse.
Unfortunately, to our emotionally competent partners this looks a hell of a lot like we'd just rather not bother. But be careful not to confuse a lack of competence with a lack of desire.
I know when he turns around and walks away or throws up his hands and tells you "this conversation is over," it looks very much like he doesn't care.
But what's actually going on is a complex conflict common in male psychology. We're so scared of failing you that we can no longer face the fear of enduring the conversation, so we end it instead. And if it's been going on long enough, we find ways to end it before it begins.
Powerlessness masquerades as apathy.
I was talking with my colleague Simon this morning about a conversation we both have frequently with couples.
I told a story about a couple I worked with a few years back. She came to realize in a powerfully emotional moment that her husband's shutting down behavior was intricately tied to her own critical accusations. When she discovered what was going on, she asked him if he felt powerless - genuinely curious.
Struck by the power of his wife's sudden empathy, he began to weep.
Not used to this, she was scared out of her mind. She didn't know what to do with his sudden vulnerability.
Being from New Zealand, Simon is a bit of a cheeky fellow. He smiled knowingly and said, "Uh oh. Looks like he fell off his horse."
Women and men alike expect men to know how to deal with everything. So when we don't, it takes everyone by surprise. When we fall off our white horses, the world around us either leaves us there to be trampled or tries to get us back up on the horse. They ask us to be vulnerable, but when we are, we're punished for it.
We need help.
Sometimes, that can be achieved with a little reading, open communication or through resources like TED videos or corporate trainings on communication.
Sometimes, it can only be addressed through therapy or life changing experiences like the birth of a child.
Whatever the solution, it matters that our partners understand what's going on with us. We may not even know how to describe it until someone points it out to us...gently.
I've worked with many men who are uniquely emotionally and relationally competent. So this blog won't fit everyone. But unfortunately, these men are generally the exception rather than the rule. which is a cultural problem, not an individual one.
Be careful with the men in your life. They are more delicate than they appear.