Dear Awesome Woman,
What a strange question I’m asking—does your husband feel safe with you? And yet, the answer is quite simple—if he shuts down a lot, is irritated a lot, is afraid to make decisions, or spends little time with you, we can infer that he is not feeling that emotionally safe with you. I’m not talking about Borderline/Narcissist cases where the husband is manipulative, controlling, mean, and raging nor am I talking about a husband whose pressures at work are overwhelming. I’m talking about a regular, mostly kind and generous man who is nervous or shut down around his wife because if he makes the wrong decision, loads the dishwasher not the way his wife wants him to or is always being told that he’s not doing enough, gets in trouble.
We are all walking nervous systems and there are different dial settings. Here are a few to be aware of:
—A relaxed, safe-feeling state—no danger around, rest and digest, all is well.
—An engaging friendly state of social engagement.
—An alert, defensive, and alarmed state—fight, flight, or freeze—the person feels the need to protect themselves, not just physically, but emotionally because their state of being is in some way being threatened.
Each of us can easily be in the alarm/defensive state (fight, flight, or freeze) if our dreams, hopes, and wishes are often being criticized or if we’re constantly given the message that we’re inadequate.
Each of us can also live in the positive space of feeling safe to engage with others when we’re feeling validated, appreciated, recognized, and seen. Spouses can do this for each other. They can create an atmosphere at home that is safe, loving, and kind for the other. They can create spaces where the other can breathe and have the desire to engage and connect.
Since I mostly coach women and my newsletters are directed to women, I’m giving advice here for you, dear awesome woman. Of course, there is much to say to husbands who are critical, demeaning, and controlling—but that is my husband’s job as a therapist since he works with both the husbands and wives in our Couple’s Workshop.
My job with you here is to help you create a warm, kind atmosphere at home where your husband’s nervous system can be less engaged in the fight, flight, and freeze response and more engaged in the feeling of safety.
Nurturing emotional safety in marriage is the key to a healthy, joy-filled marriage. As women, we have the wisdom, courage, and power to do this.
And guess what? If your husband feels safer, then so will you. There will be more peace and less fighting. There will be more kindness and less defensiveness. So, it’s a win-win situation for everyone in the home.
Let’s take a look at masculine culture. Men, in general, are raised in a societal environment rampant with humiliation and shaming. There is an underlying atmosphere of competition, teasing, and harsh expectations. Society gives the message to men “to toughen up, be brave, stop whining, and just deal with it like a man.”
Compassion is not usually expressed to them in educational and sports settings. Nor is it regularly expressed to them amongst their friends. When boys are constantly being teased and getting the message to “toughen up,” they will reject feeling vulnerable. They will also reject feeling the vulnerability of getting things wrong and the vulnerability of making mistakes. And if in the unfortunate chance of when they do feel vulnerable, they will feel stupid, less than, and ashamed leading to an angry, shut down and/or defensive reaction.
The male culture primes a man’s nervous system to be in a highly alert state—they can quickly smell negative judgment and disrespect. As wives, we may unknowingly activate this highly alert state of our husbands with our tone, our complaining, our criticism, our judgment and our expressions of disappointment or feeling let down by them—all indications that they have failed us somehow.
I like the term “highly allergic” that I once heard speaker Shterna Ginsberg use. The childhood and societal expectations that men have been raised with cause many husbands to be “highly allergic” to anything that smacks of disrespect, criticism, and judgment of them.
Any time that you, as a wife, express yourself in language that is indicative that your husband did something wrong or has failed you in some way will trigger that shame and humiliation. Any time your husband feels negatively judged, it will trigger the fight/flight response of their nervous system, hence snapping at you (a fight response) or shutting down (a flight response).
Even if you’re not directly saying it, the energy behind your words can reveal expectations or judgment. A highly allergic husband will smell it and it will trigger that shame attack. If your husband is feeling shame, he may lash out at you. Imagine a trapped and wounded stray dog that lashes out with its teeth and nails. That’s the fight response.
Or imagine a little boy who got a poor grade on a test and his father shakes his head in disappointment and scolds him for not doing well enough, not trying hard enough, or not being smart enough. The little boy wants to slink away in shame. He finds a corner to curl up and brood in and builds up armor so that he’ll never be hurt again. That’s the flight response. We can see this same reaction in a husband shutting down. He may leave the scene physically or emotionally or both, closing his heart to you.
As a woman, perhaps you have also experienced being criticized and shamed. These are not exclusive to the male experience. The difference is that women tend to be relationship-oriented beings and bond with others when feeling hurt. They’ll go to their friends and share their feelings of pain, crying, and getting soothed with empathy, compassion, and nurturing.
But in the male culture, it is admired to be stoic and brave. Most boys will keep their feelings in, not sharing with anyone that they are sad and hurt. They want to just keep up the tough exterior that they’re ok and that nothing (and no one) can touch them. Vulnerability is a big no-no for boys and men. Hopefully, we can change that as we raise our sons, and also change the education system, but many of our husbands have been raised being shamed for their vulnerability, rather than encouraged and supported in dealing with their pain.
Let’s take a quick quiz:
How Critical a Wife Are You?
Kabbalah explains that women come from the spiritual energy of Gevurah, which translates as strictness. This means that we are able to notice more easily than a man at times the negative of a situation. We can be very discerning and notice what is lacking. We can be strict with our judgment and assessment of things.
Some of us women have a lot of this Gevorah. And we can use these awesome strict/discerning powers for good—knowing who to hire or, become friends with, noticing and guiding who our children become friends with, and so on—or for the negative—only seeing the negative in our spouses or being nitpicky and controlling.
So let’s get honest and see how you may unconsciously be showing up as controlling, shaming, blaming, dismissive, bossy, and/or negative-judging to your husband.
How often do you …
Ask him to take out the garbage with a criticism: “Why don’t you ever remember to take out the garbage?”
Get mad at him for leaving his clothes around the room.
Tell him that you don’t like his friends.
Tell him how to dress or make negative remarks about his looks.
Tell him how to eat.
Tell him his ideas are bad ideas.
Tell him how to take care of the kids—how to change diapers, feed the kids.
Tell him how to ask for a raise, when to ask for a raise, when to get a new job.
Go on your phone when he is around.
Put him down for not bringing in enough money.
Compliment him and let him know that you appreciate him.
There’s no scoring for this quiz—just a reality check for you. If you’re often criticizing him or telling him how and what to do, you’re probably strangling the poor guy. Let go of the reins and free him to be his own man, do things his way (even if they don’t work sometimes—he’s human and can make mistakes), and make his own choices. And don’t worry—the tips I’ll be sharing will help you get your concerns and needs met, too. A caring and validating partnership in a marriage is a real thing. Let’s help get you there.
So what can we do?
For a husband who is highly allergic to shame, that little humiliated boy sits inside that mature man’s body, and in an intimate relationship, he will lash out or shut down if he even smells the energy of criticism, control, and negative judgment.
As wives, we don’t want to trigger that shame. It certainly does not lead to an emotionally safe atmosphere for our husbands. But if you’re like me, you may not have known that you were triggering any of this in your husband. Growing up in a secular culture meant saying anything on my mind. Being completely honest. “Say what you think!” was the philosophy nurtured when I was growing up. But guess what? That is a terrible philosophy for marriage (and just about any relationship).
It’s not that you should shut down your own voice, but you can choose to use your voice wisely. There are words you can use to get your needs met in a more respectful manner. There are words and energies you can use to encourage and support rather than put down. These shifts that you make as a woman can create an atmosphere of emotional safety for both yourself and your husband.
Tip #1 DROP THE “SHOULD” ENERGY & SAY IT DIFFERENTLY
(taken from my marriage e-guide—6 Simple Tips to Up the Vibe of Your Marriage Today!)
The practicalities of marriage, with endless to-do lists of managing a home, can sometimes overrun the care that a husband and wife have for each other. You may feel that your husband doesn’t care about your happiness because when you ask him to do certain things, they fall by the wayside. Maybe he’ll grunt, ignore or argue back about the tasks or suggestions you bring up to him. And perhaps you think to yourself—shouldn’t he do these things without me telling him? Doesn’t he care? Doesn’t he know that it would make me happy if he just did….?
I believe that when you drop the “shoulding” energy in the home and make changes to the language you use with your husband, then you will see his desire to make you happy return as a reality in your marriage.
Tune into your body for a minute and feel what “should” energy does inside. Try completing this sentence with the things that come to mind: “My husband should ….” Do you notice the physical sensation of tightness or tension? A furrowing of the brows or a clenching of the jaw? “Should” can be a very aggressive energy, whether we direct it inwards towards ourselves or outwards towards others.
Now drop the “should” energy and tap into your desires. What is it that you want? Do you want to go out to dinner? Do you want more help around the house? Do you want the bills paid on time? Do you want the kids to eat certain kinds of healthy foods? I love the suggestions from the author, Laura Doyle. She says to preempt your desire/request to your husband with the words, “like” or “love.”
Try saying it this way:
I’d love to go out to dinner.
I love when the bills are paid on time. I feel so much safer that way.
I’d love more help around the house. I’m so tired after work (or after taking care of the kids).
I like the kids getting fed healthy food. Those cereals just contain so much sugar and chemicals and I’m concerned for their health.
You may notice softer energy replacing that tense energy of “shoulding.” You’re also telling him what your desires are without using the word “you” which can sometimes feel bossy, naggy, and controlling to a man. Expressing yourself this way takes getting used to, but can make a world of difference. It definitely will feel more respectful to your husband.
Also, notice your fears—besides coming from the spiritual energy of strictness, many women judge and control from a place of fear.
In my marriage, when an issue comes up and my response feels controlling to my husband and we start to butt heads, we both have come to the realization that I’ve most likely moved into fear mode. If I catch it first, I’ll say to him, “What’s the question you need to ask me?” That prompts him to ask, “What are you afraid of?” And then I launch into all my fears around a situation. I tend to be super practical and like a certain kind of order to things and my husband tends to be risk-taking and more spontaneous, so this question dynamic can happen quite often. After over 30 years of marriage, we finally figured out how to bypass a lot of conflicts this way!
You can be vulnerable and tell your husband what your fears are which feels a lot better than control energy. This is more likely to trigger concern and care in your husband than defensiveness. Again, a win-win for everyone.
****A note about this tip: If you feel charged and angry about certain things in your marriage, it’s not only important to reach out for help, but you can also try using the somatic technique I developed called The ROAR! Process to validate and release your resentment, grief, and frustration. Emotions are “energy in motion” and we don’t want that energy to get stuck in the body where physical and emotional pain symptoms can develop.
Tip #2 VALIDATION
It’s a basic human need to be want to be seen, heard, understood, and validated. I love the book, “I Don’t Have to Make Everything All Better” by Gary and Joy Lundberg especially the chapter on validating a spouse. How kind it is when our husbands share a bad day or difficult situation with us and instead of trying to give advice (yes, as wives we usually have great ideas!) or fix it, we just listen and validate their experience. Choosing to put the duct tape on (as Laura Doyle suggests) and saying less rather than more, is a kindness we can provide. This act alone will provide more emotional safety for our partners.
Tip #3 LET HIM KNOW WHAT HE IS GETTING RIGHT BY YOU
Let your husband know what he is getting right by you. Don’t take anything for granted. If he works to provide for the family (even if you do to), you can tell him that you appreciate that. Let him know that it makes you feel safe and loved that he gets up every day to do this.
Does he help at home? Say what that means to you! Tell him that you really love his help with the dishes, with dinner, with carpool, with taking care of the lawn and that you feel supported by him. Nothing is too small to appreciate. In the strange world that we live in, we are often inundated with messages of lack and what we need to change. How wonderful and safe it can feel to your spouse to let him know what he is getting right by you and that you see and appreciate his efforts. This will have a domino effect and he’ll mostly likely even want to show up more for you as the incredible man you see him as.
Small changes have big effects. Your home can be a safer, more nurturing center for your spouse and loved ones. When your husband feels kindness from you, his nervous system will hum at a calm and engaging pace radiating peace and light into your world and the world at large.
Need a helping hand? Schedule your free 20-minute Marriage Magic Clarity Call today! As a Somatic Healer, Relationship Expert & Clarity Coach, I help empower women to trust themselves through the wisdom of their bodies and intuition in their relationships, careers, and health. Looking forward to hearing your voice!
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Love & blessings,
Master Mindbody/Somatic Healer & Relationship Expert