Very early in life you may have learned an important lesson about obedience. If you obeyed your parents, nothing bad would happen. If you didn’t obey, you would get punished. You had to learn to conform to a standard that was placed upon you. Learning to follow the rules of the family, classroom, and society is not a bad thing, but failure to obey these rules could be disastrous.
What if you were raised in a family that had lots of rules but very little love? If your family was heavy in law but light on love, it may have become very important to you to never be wrong about anything. Your value as a person came from following the rules and never doing wrong. Yet this sense of self-worth was constantly challenged because no one can do everything right all the time. So if a mistake was made, it had to be concealed.
Many men have tremendous difficulty talking vulnerably to their wives about anything. They may be hurt by something she said or did; but instead of saying anything to her, the typical response is to clam up. Unfortunately, this only serves to confirm a sense of powerlessness. Sometimes a wife will try to get a response to see if her husband is emotionally alive. It’s as if he turned off his emotions, and she is left with the dubious task of trying to read his mind by any little thing he says or does.
Passive withdrawal is a response to fear and insecurity. Like the child in school who is afraid to raise his hand to answer the question, many men hold fast to the rule of when in doubt do nothing. But simultaneously, passive withdrawal can be an expression of hostility. If you have been hurt by your wife, clamming up can bring you some satisfaction when you see the frustration developing in her.
The other option is to let your fury fly and criticize or slam your wife rather than talk with her. If her behavior has been eating away at you for any length of time, the confrontation could easily become an explosion. Like the proverbial pressure-cooker analogy, the steam release valve isn’t working properly so an explosion is eminent. Your emotions come out in a cathartic outpouring, and your spouse doesn’t understand why it is so intense.
Both ‘Clamming’ and ‘Slamming’ are different sides of the same dysfunctional coin. The answer is to be assertive in expressing what you need. What does that mean exactly? It means letting your wife in on your feelings in a way that doesn’t threaten or degrade her in any way. Confrontation requires action, not passivity. It requires tact, vulnerability and wisdom to share your thoughts without harming your spouse. Most of all, it requires courage to confront our own emotions and thoughts, to discover what is really the issue.
The first step in expressing what you need is to identify what you need. Sometimes our feelings direct our actions, but the feeling is just an indicator of what is happening inside our hearts and minds. For example, if you are feeling angry, it may be that you are fearful of being out of control. The anger is the emotion that is on the surface, but getting to the core of what is causing that is what will need to be expressed. For example: “I am feeling angry and it is coming from my frustration about the situation.” It isn’t helpful just to express what you need, expecting your spouse to fulfill that need. It is more helpful to do some reflection to understand what you really are seeking and what part of that need can be met by your spouse. It also helps to hear their experience with you on whatever is the issue.
Start today by recognizing the feelings that are directing your life. It might be anger or it could be disappointment, or a number of other emotions. Have the courage to confront your emotions to discover your true need. You can work with a friend or counselor to discover what emotion is driving you, and then you will be able to have a productive conversation with your spouse which will create deeper intimacy.