Why Won’t My Partner Open Up?

Do you find yourself pushing your feelings down because your partner always seems to tense up and over react when you try and tell him? Are you worried to ask your partner his feelings because he clamps down, and you feel like you never get anywhere?

You aren’t alone.

While more women than ever are realizing the cleansing power of talking through their issues and releasing pent up emotion, men are still holding back.

Hand in Hand Parenting Founder Patty Wipfler discussed this on her recent appearance with Jenna Canfield, in a series about resilient parenting.

As they discussed the benefits of Listening Time, a Hand in Hand tool where parents agree to exchange timed moments to talk and listen, partners came up.

Are men truly more reluctant to talk and share with others than women, Jenna asked, and if so, why?

Patty, nodded. “Overwhelmingly, yes,” she said.

But her insights on why were clear. Society has belittled, judged and, in many cases, bullied them for any show of feelings.

Little Boys Are Not Allowed to Show Emotion

“Little boys are expected to stuff their feelings down, to not express their fears. Oftentimes they are bullied, threatened, spanked, or hit when they do say that they are scared or sad,” Patty said.

Conditioning on men in our society starts very, very early, she says, and because of that they have “developed self-preservation strategies” to tamp down their emotions.

Which does not make them seem receptive when we sound off.

Modern brain science shows how valuable offloading stress and tension is, and women who get listening time see big differences in their parenting. Not surprisingly, they wish their partners could be more open to the idea, or, at least, to talking to them.

That expectation might be unfair.

“A person can’t really un-do 20, or 30, or 40 years of conditioning overnight, they just can’t, even when they are in a tight spot,” Patty cautioned. Even when men do begin to open up, they may not tend to do it in the same way as a woman might, she says.

Anger Over Tears

Instead of tears a male response to the isolation he can feel after being alone with his emotions for so long is often hard to watch.

“Oftentimes, the first feeling that men can actually feel is anger. There aren’t many listeners who can be, ‘Oh Yeah! Go right ahead and get angry with me if you need to.’ We don’t welcome the full expression of anger in our society and in our relationships,” Patty explains.

Anger and rage can be really overwhelming for women listeners. Not because we are weak, but because our own fears get triggered. “In childhood, we may have witnessed our parents’ anger and rage, and those feelings of fear from long ago can be triggered. We get scared,” Patty says.

Even if anger is not the default reaction, or if a man gets past those feelings, his way of offloading can look very different from a female response.

When a man or a woman is beginning to offload fear, they don’t easily cry. But they may perspire.

“As a person gets close to emotional material, especially fear, they may begin to sweat. That’s a really good sign that fear is releasing, odd as that might seem. Most of us have offloaded fear this way when we’ve had to make a presentation to a group, or were in a challenging social situation,” Patty says.

Laughter is Good

“And don’t be offended by laughter or joking,” says Patty. “This is an effective way to get rid of tension. People who feel safe enough to laugh freely can get to tears eventually.”

In fact, men should give themselves plenty of room to not show dramatic emotions. Thinking and talking can be very helpful,” Patty says.

“These quieter signs, thinking, talking, joking and yes, sweating—are all signs that your partner is processing some kind of tension. All you need to do is listen, try not to keep score.”

If you can, be open to listening to anything your husband shares in the same way as you would your listening partner. It can also help to shine a little ‘secret’ special time on him to raise his sense of safety. Spend five or ten minutes observing him and appreciating him as he talks or tinkers on something. Even if he says nothing, he’ll feel this warm attention.

“We need to be accept whatever path it takes to build a sense of safety. Listening can counter all of the negative judgment they have suffered in their lives around having feelings,” Patty explains.

So, if you want to give a Valentine’s gift this year, bring your attention and your warm understanding.

Watch the whole of Patty and Jenna’s conversation on parenting with connection here. You’ll learn how Hand in Hand’s tools evolved and how to use them to build strong and lasting connections with your children. 

From the Hand in Hand Toolbox

Read Partnering Well as Parents if you’d like to know more about building connection with your partner

Hand in Hand’s Top 5 Podcasts include When Your Child Lashes Out, The Secret to Handling Your Child’s Tantrums, and When We Mess Up As Parents. Get them here as a free download

5 Ways to Deal With Family Stress During Listening Time helps you doscover how to use your Listening Partnership to turn around stressful relationships with your family


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