Advice On Dealing with A Partner Who is Emotionally Retarded
THIS IS AN OLD POST THAT HAS BEEN GETTING A LOT OF TRAFFIC LATELY SO I THOUGHT I WOULD GIVE IT ANOTHER SPIN. LEAVE ME A COMMENT AND SHARE YOUR VIEWS #ONTHECOUCHWITHCARLY
“I’m an emotional being, I have no problem talking about how I feel and showing affection. My husband on the other hand doesn’t, it feels as though he’s almost completely detached from his emotions. I know he loves me deeply but he has a hard time showing it. He also struggles in his other relationships, his parents, friends, etc. So my question, is this something I need to accept about him or is there a way I can help him to open up more emotionally?”
Ooooooh good question. I think this is an important question and probably something most women have had to grapple with. I don’t like gender stereotypes because they tend to limit the way we talk about gender differences. I use the word ‘differences’ here deliberately because I DO think that there are differences I’m just not prepared to lump all guys together and in opposition to all girls. But nevertheless there are some real differences in the way men and women think and act and this has to do with environmental factors like socialization as well as biological factors like genetics, reproduction, etc.
When it comes to dealing with emotions, well sure, there are differences there too. All people vary in their ability to handle their feelings. From the psychological research, particularly that relating to Bolby’s famous Attachment Theory, it is clear that there are distinct styles of relating. The most basic distinction is in terms of the expression of emotions.
The avoidant/dismissive style describes those people who learned early on in life that expressing feelings is either pointless or at worst, dangerous. There is a whole body of infant brain research that links our early attachment relationships to our style of relating as adults and I think it’s all pretty great stuff. But unfortunately that means that if your husband learned as an infant that his needs would not be adequately met when he expressed his emotions, then he is basically hard-wired to suppress his feelings and is unlikely to find it comfortable to do so even when the woman he loves most in the world asks him to.
So…yes, our attachment styles (which determine how we deal with feelings in relationships) are set up during infancy and early childhood. And yes, this determines the way our brains are hardwired thereby creating a kind of blueprint for the way in which we handle feelings in relationships throughout life. But – and thank God there is a ‘but’ here – we can make adjustments to our blue print via meaningful, impactful attachment experiences in later life. If there wasn’t this ‘but’ then there really would be no use for psychologists. We rely on the fact that people can learn new ways of relating and therefore new ways of managing and expressing their feelings.
Depending on how open your husband is to this, you may want to consider therapy (either individual or couples) because this really can be a useful way of developing an emotional vocabulary if nothing else. The best-case scenario would be that somehow having a third, neutral person to mediate and make suggestions about how he can better communicate with you might be less threatening for him and will help both of you to see things from the other’s perspective.
In individual therapy, he will have the opportunity to explore his past and discover the reasons behind his style of relating. He may discover why he feels uncomfortable with feelings and perhaps even fears them. Many people struggle to open up because they simply feel there is no use, no function. But this is actually the surface level interpretation. A deeper interpretation might find that there is actually a very real fear that if they express their feelings then something bad will happen.
It is important that as adults we come to terms with our fears and start to face them head on. As a man, he might not want to even consider the fact that he has fears to begin with so all of this might come as quite a blow to the ego. Be kind and gentle with him as he comes to terms with the fact that he is a fallible and vulnerable human being because it is probably the last thing he wants to face.
If he is not so open to therapy and acts as if he sees no problem with the way things are, then you have a bit more of a tough job. It always sucks in a relationship when someone’s complaint or concern is dismissed as nonsense or when he says, “you’re just being over-sensitive”. Remember, it is his dismissive blueprint that is talking here – he is hardwired to want to avoid seeing or dealing with these things. But if he loves you and if he is committed to trying to see your point of view then he will at least try to hear you out.
At this point you have to be really careful. I am the first person to admit that I have yet to find a way of communicating my feelings to a man without completely overwhelming him. Think of it like feeding a baby: small, bite-sized pieces to start. And also, give him time. You may want a reaction from him immediately but don’t be surprised if he stays silent for some time (hopefully this means he is processing what you’ve told him and he’s trying to work through it using his “man-mind”, which probably works better when not put under pressure).
Let’s say he comes back to you a day or so later and admits that he sucks at talking about feelings. That’s a good start. Maybe he doesn’t know where to begin. Maybe he feels he needs to solve all your problems and when you come at him with your chaotic “woman-mind” then he gets overwhelmed and feels helpless and then shuts down. Explain to him that he doesn’t need to solve it for you. Being good with feelings has nothing to do with solving problems or fixing something that is broken (both of which guys love to say they’re good at). Being good with feelings is about being with someone while they are experiencing their feelings and not trying to do anything about it. This is waaaay more difficult than it seems and takes a lifetime of practice.
Firstly, you need to be able to read emotions. Give him a rough guide for that. Explain to him that he can guess between 4 core emotions to begin with. For example: Sadness, Happiness, Anger, and Fear/Anxiety/Worry. Step one is therefore IDENTIFY THE FEELING. Tell him that his job is to try and interpret what is going on with you. When you get home from work and stomp around the house, he can assume that you are feeling something along the lines of anger/frustration/annoyance etc. That’s the first step. The second step is to REFLECT THE FEELING. This is where he says to you, “Honey, you look cross” or “I can see that you’re feeling annoyed”. Please note that you also have a role in this and that is to not do what us females are infamous for. Don’t say “Nothing” and then expect him to probe further. Again, men are simple. If you say that nothing is wrong then nothing is wrong. If you want them to talk to you, don’t shut them out before they’ve even begun.
Once you’ve communicated to him what you’re feeling, step 3 is simply BE WITH THE FEELING. He needs to sit with you, give you a squeeze on the hand or the shoulder, offer you a hug/cup of tea/glass of wine, and be able to tolerate being with you while you feel whatever it is that you’re feeling. This is really, really hard. While I write this I am considering how ludicrous it is to even think that by breaking it down into steps, that somehow this is straightforward.
The reason this is so hard is because he is not a therapist who has no agenda or needs in the relationship. He is your partner – another human –who is at any given time feeling his own set of feelings, which may be really simple like, “I feel like I want to sit on the couch and watch the game” or may be more complex like, “I feel frustrated at work because my boss undermines me, making me question my abilities and leaving me feeling insecure and inadequate”. So this entire endeavor takes an enormous amount of maturity from both parties because each has to try and do steps 1 to 3 with themselves and their own feelings as well as with the other person and their feelings. The fact that any relationships ever work at all amazes me. This stuff is so hard.
Basically just try and remember that no one likes to be vomited on emotionally. We all have feelings and sometimes they get intense and overwhelming but it is just not fair to expect another person to always have to wade through your pile of emotional shit. Try and work through and process your feelings as much as you can before they get too explosive. But hopefully your commitment is strong enough that an explosion every now and again can be tolerated and more importantly I hope that he knows that it is also his job to help soothe your discomfort and lessen your emotional load.
That brings us to the other part of your question. If your man isn’t naturally affectionate (which is also part of his dismissive attachment style) then it most likely leaves you feeling less cared for and less noticed than if he was. We can excuse a man’s inability to talk about feelings way easier if he shows us how he feels by giving us hugs and touching us in that way that indicates we’re special to him. Without affection, even the most loving and dutiful partner can be misinterpreted as being callous and uncaring. Affection really is the physical manifestation of care and it is 100% natural to need, want and crave it. We are mammals after all!
The problem is, if he has grown up without affection than his brain has been wired in such a way that affection just isn’t on his radar. I find it very difficult to believe that he doesn’t enjoy some form of affection though. Do you show him affection? Has there been anything that he’s responded to? Maybe he likes firm, deep touch and not light, soft touch? People vary in the kind of touch that appeals to them. Either have a conversation with him about this or do your own experiments. I can bet that he likes sex. Try working these things out while you’re both naked and already engaging on the physical plain. Then, if all else fails, just tell him exactly what you like and when and how you’d like it. If he has to fake it to make it then that’s what he has to do. If after all these attempts, you are still finding that his lack of affection is bothering you, then I’m afraid you may have to accept that this is one of your man’s limitations.
We all have our failings. No partner is perfect. If you can accept him with his limitations, knowing that the good outweighs the bad, then I am sure you guys will be fine. If you feel that this is a deal-breaker however, then I think it is something worth discussing with him or even possibly to take to therapy. The risk is, if you are not feeling fulfilled in this very important way then you might find yourself looking for affection from someone else and that would obviously be very bad. Therefore it really is about finding the balance between knowing and honouring your own needs in the relationship with the reality of who your partner is and what he can offer you. Good luck! If you need to continue this discussion, please use the comments section.