July 11th, 2007 by Nina Atwood
What happens during relationship conflict when a man feels unsafe emotionally? When emotionally triggered, our brains are wired to send us into “fight or flight.” One way of fleeing is to clam up, withdraw. Observation over two decades of counseling men and women has demonstrated that this occurs when men feel emotionally unsafe. What makes men feel unsafe? Men feel unsafe when a woman attacks, accuses, blames, and generally conveys the notion that the guy is failing her (in her eyes). But what causes a woman to engage in such destructive behavior?
Typically, a woman feels angry toward her man because of unmet expectations, and this shows up in a variety of ways. One common unmet expectation is that he isn’t shaping up the way she wants him to; i.e., he’s a fixer-upper in her eyes, she sets out to improve him, and he resists her efforts to make him a better man. Men want to be admired for who they are, not made to feel that they must change or improve in order to maintain a woman’s love. This doesn’t mean that a guy won’t self-improve in order to win or maintain a certain woman’s love – I’ve seen that happen many times. But it’s self-directed, not brought about by her demands.
If a couple gets into this cycle – she gets angry because of unmet expectations, attacks and blames, he withdraws, provoking more anger – the relationship is in jeopardy. The way out is calm straight talk combined with active listening - identify the issue, deal with only one issue at a time, put it on the table minus the anger, share openly about your needs but in a non-demanding way, and listen to your partner.
In a dating relationship, one of your primary tasks is to learn how to negotiate your needs successfully during times of conflict. If you don’t learn that now, you’ll set yourselves up for a marriage full of drama and unmet needs. If you do learn how now, you set the stage for a lifelong, happy marriage. For all the communication guidelines you’ll ever need, read my books Date Lines and Soul Talk.