The Taming Of The Spew
My husband is a great guy. He loves our child,
he's a good provider, and I know he cares deeply for me. He just can't
seem to pay attention when I start speaking of my emotional needs --
concerns about money, career, and what the world is coming to; and
questions us creative types have in trying to reach the next level of
consciousness: "Who am I? What am I? What does it all mean?" When I tell
him how frustrated this makes me, he "checks out" or leaves the room to
shout back and forth from another part of the house. Having intimate
discussions at high decibels is not feeding the tender parts of my
heart. I'm feeling more abandoned with every attempt to be heard. It's
affecting our sex life, and making me wonder whether I should stay or
go. Can this relationship be saved? --Hungry Heart
Sit down, because you're in for some shocking revelations: 1. There is no Santa Claus. 2. The Tooth Fairy has a five o'clock shadow and a beer gut. 3. You married a man, not Oprah.
You know that line, "If the guy had half a brain..."? Well, in the verbal ability department, men basically do. According to neuroscientist Julian Paul Keenan, an MRI of a man talking usually shows only one hemisphere of his brain lighting up (compared to a woman's two). This doesn't mean men are stupid. They're simply physiologically ill-equipped to be chatty. That's why, when a man comes home, and his wife unleashes a torrent of "whatIdidandhowIfeltaboutitandwhatitallmeans," there's a good chance all he hears is the sound of her lips moving. Maybe 45 minutes in, she puts a hand on his shoulder and asks, "Do you feel like chicken or steak?" and he jolts to life. "Uhh...steak sounds good, dear."
Expecting the average man to be as emotionally articulate as a woman makes about as much sense as expecting your 4-year-old to get work as a tax accountant, or your goldfish to play fetch. Men are at a distinct physical and hormonal disadvantage in processing feelings, notes brain researcher Michael Gurian. They have less storage space in their brains for emotional experience, and fewer connectors between hemispheres to turn feelings into words -- which means feelings that go in are prone to get lost like the dog's ball behind the couch. Because of this, it doesn't take a whole lot of emotional input to overload a man. And because men are achievement-oriented, feeling like a failure for being unable to deal adds insult to overload. Can you really blame your husband for "checking out"?
Emotional overload can literally be toxic to a man (and, in turn, a marriage) according to psychologists John Gottman and Robert Levenson. They cite studies showing that emotional stress unleashes a "fight or flight" chemical response, same as if he was being chased by a Velociraptor. Yes, even if it's only his wife chasing after him to be her combination therapist, best girlfriend, political analyst, career counselor, financial advisor, and strip-mall psychic. There's even evidence that persistent emotional overload depresses the immune system, and may lead to heart disease. So...maybe some of those men who died of heart attacks...really got nagged to death?
Berating your husband for being a failure as your therapist is like berating your therapist for failing to take out your garbage. But, you have needs! They must be met! And, maybe many of them can be--with a staff of more than one. (Just a guess, but did you drop-kick all your female friends the moment you met your husband?) For more satisfying venting, choose a best girlfriend from the wide variety of qualified candidates without prostates or five-o'clock shadows. Good luck finding a man who unwinds after a long day at the office by wrapping his button-down around his head in a turban, and revealing the meaning of life.
To stay with your husband, you'll have to accept that, like many males, he is a good man, but a washout as a woman. Accordingly, look for him to show you he cares, not to go on and on about it like some therapy poodle. Because men are slower to process emotion, when you need his input, do as Gurian suggests: Send him to work with the problem, giving him all day to get his turban in gear.
For guidance in repairing your relationship, read Gottman's The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work and Gurian's What Could He Be Thinking? Regarding your notion that marriage should be jail for a husband's attention, turn to the wise words of crime writer Elmore Leonard (elmoreleonard.com) -- #10 in his "Rules Of Writing": "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip."
Copyright ©2004, Amy Alkon, from her syndicated column, "The Advice Goddess," which appears in over 100 papers across the U.S. and Canada. All rights reserved.