The fear/shame dynamic in men and women

My name is Stephanie Mitelman, and I am a certified sexuality educator. In this blog I will be addressing readers’ questions on sexuality, health, and relationships. Please don’t be shy to send me a question you have! I will be happy to answer one every month!

My partner and I just seem to be fighting a lot these days. What am I missing about men?

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This question is a big one! Most people are missing a lot of the essential information they need to have harmonious intimate relationships with their partners, whether male or female. Unfortunately, in our society, we do not teach the basics of how men and women relate and communicate, leaving people to figure things out on their own. Some people cycle through many tumultuous relationships, while others seem to get it right away. A lot will have to do with what you learned from your own parents and caregivers as a child, but let me share with you a central theme that comes up time and time again after many years of doing this work.

Men and women get triggered by different things. A trigger is a strong emotional reaction that can occur by a situation, a phrase, a look, a smell or anything else that evokes emotion. And fear is a primal emotion. Most of what we do as human beings is either driven directly or indirectly by fear. Sometimes we are not even aware that this is happening.

But to really understand each other, we must understand how our fears differ, and thus the emotional reaction and the behaviours that follow in response.

  • Women have a deep primal fear of being isolated and being alone.
  • Men have a deep primal fear of failure, or feeling shamed.

Before we look at some examples, it is important to note that intimate relationships (such as partners) will trigger each other much more than other relationships because of the importance the partnership holds. As adults, most people turn to their partners for love, acceptance, unconditional support and sexual expression. This is a tall order that other relationships do not carry the weight of.

So when things go off track in intimate unions, the pressure and pain of that will always feel greater than in other kinds of relationships. Now let’s take a look at how the fear/ shame dynamic plays out over and over again.

Many women have very strong reactions to their partners looking at other women, having close relationships to others, or worst of all… when he shuts down and stops communicating.

While, withdrawing is a “normal” response for males in response to arousing situations and helps them to regulate their emotions, a female partner is likely to have a strong reaction to his withdrawal because it triggers her fear of being alone. While a male partner may be physically present, if a female does not feel “connected” emotionally to that person, she will still experience the same emotional response of feeling alone. Which by the way… often leaves men feeling confused- and saying “but I am right here!”. Feeling ‘connected” is not typically a response that males get intuitively. After all, when women are having a tough day, they phone each other and vent! And as female friends, we feel privileged to be the one called to listen and offer advice! Women soothe each other with this connectivity.

Men on the other hand do not. Their physical response to talking about emotion is not soothing. It is irritating. They have more blood that begins pumping through their veins, their heart rate increases and they begin releasing hormones into the body that are not comforting. This is why no man was ever comforted by the words “honey- we need to talk when you get home!”.

To effectively bring up emotional subjects with men, it is best to let him know in advance that you need to talk, choose the time together, and sometimes be involved in another activity (such as driving or walking the dog) while discussing. It is much more difficult for men to start an emotional discussion when it is just sprung onto them, and they did not see it coming!

One reason for this is that for men, a “talk” usually means (to him at least) that he has done something wrong. Whether this is true or intended, a man will start to feel the overall discomfort that accompanies him when he feels like he has failed in some way. Many women do not understand that most men revolve their emotional worlds around their partners. And if she is not happy, neither is he.

Men take great pride in their ability to provide for their partners and families, and are especially susceptible to anything that feels like criticism in the areas of providing (either financially or sexually), and protecting (either her or the children). It is both hard wired and socialized into the minds of young men to provide and protect. Anything that challenges this role can create a feeling of shame for a man. And most men will then withdraw or shut down in response to this intolerable feeling.

While the dynamic of fear and shame plays out in so many ways, both big and small almost every day, it is the awareness to each other’s hurts and fears that help repair these instances. To calm the waters of conflict, women need to feel protected, and men need to feel appreciated. Trying to understand your partner’s discomfort through their fears and hurts is the compassion that helps keeps the bonds between couples strong.

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