Avrum Weiss, Ph.D.
Men’s fear of conflict in relationships may lead to unhealthy withholding.
Posted August 1, 2022 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Women are sometimes portrayed as dominating and controlling, while men are presented as compliant and afraid to speak up about what they want.
- Men may be hesitant to speak up in their relationships because of their aversion to conflict and fear of being abandoned.
- Men are often willing to contort themselves to almost any extent to avoid women being angry with them, but this can take a heavy toll.
The preacher asked her
And she said I do
The preacher asked me
And she said yes, he does too
And the preacher said
I pronounce you 99 to life
Son she’s no lady she’s your wife
— Lyle Lovett, “She’s No Lady”
These Lyle Lovett lyrics are one of many jokes in which women are portrayed as dominating and controlling, and men are presented as compliant and afraid to speak up about what they want. Psychologist Dana Jack is well known for her work on the patriarchal pressures on women to silence themselves in intimate relationships and the resultant emotional, physiological, and sociocultural costs. Jack agrees that although the causes and costs differ, men also struggle not to silence themselves in intimate relationships. My clinical experience supports that men tend to be more reticent than their female partners in opening up about their internal lives. In most therapy with heterosexual couples, it is the woman who takes the lead in being more emotionally open. If the therapy goes well, the man follows her lead and matches her vulnerability.
Two significant issues impede men from speaking up in intimate relationships with women.
The first is shame. Men are particularly reluctant to speak up about their own needs and desires in relationships with women because they have been socialized to be emotionally self-reliant and to feel ashamed of needing anything from anyone.
The second problem for men in speaking up is the fear of conflict and, ultimately, the fear of abandonment. Men are hesitant to speak up about their needs in relationships because they worry that speaking up will make things worse, maybe even much worse.
Men’s fear of abandonment in relationships is perhaps most visible in the lengths that men will go to avoid conflict in their relationships. Men monitor their partners’ emotional states constantly and carefully, scanning for any signs of potential conflict, criticism, or disapproval. Any evidence of unhappiness or disapproval is often interpreted by men as criticism or failure. They immediately assume they have done something wrong, that they are “in the doghouse” and will not return to favor until they figure out what they have done wrong and correct it. Reassurance from their wives that they are not “in trouble” is rarely sufficient for men to feel let off the hook.
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Men are often willing to contort themselves to almost any extent to avoid women being angry with them. It is not uncommon for men to become so conflict-avoidant in their intimate relationships that placating their partners becomes their raison d’être, the most important thing in their relationship. The “If Mamma ain’t happy, no one’s happy” mantra of their childhood is replaced by “Happy wife, happy life.” Men can become so unsettled by their partners being angry or disapproving of them that nothing else matters until that is fixed. All they want now is for her to stop being mad at them.
Over time, men can get so gun-shy about conflict in their relationships that they just stop trying. When men talk to me about the aspects of their marriages in which they are unhappy, I ask if they have ever talked to their partners about any of the issues they are telling me. Typically, they look at me as if I were crazy. How could I not understand that talking to their partners about this would just make things worse?
A case example
Bill and Jane came to see me when their marriage was already in serious trouble. Bill was quiet, introverted, and reluctant to say much to his wife or me about what was happening inside him. Jane was just the opposite: outgoing, frequently speaking her mind without considering how her words might affect whomever she was talking to. As you might imagine, Bill and Jane’s relationship was quite volatile. Bill frequently traveled for work, but even when he was home, Jane frequently felt painfully alone. The harder and louder Jane pushed for some connection with Bob, the more withdrawn and silent he got.
I decided to have an individual session with each of them. When Bill and I were alone, he started unwinding years of frustrations and dissatisfactions about the marriage. Stunned, I asked Bill how much of this he had talked about with his wife. Bill looked at me blankly as if that were the craziest idea he had ever heard. Bill had not talked about any single part of what was troubling him to Jane and had no intention of ever doing so. As far as Bill was concerned, Jane was already so angry at him without him telling her any of what was bothering him. He couldn’t imagine risking the explosion he was sure would follow if he actually told her some of what was on his mind.
Within a few months, Bill and Jane had another explosive argument that was deeply disturbing to both of them. Jane decided she couldn’t take any more and asked Bill for a divorce. Bill has still not told her anything about what was going wrong for him in their relationship, and at this point, it is unlikely he ever will.