Emotional Absence

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What’s the Problem?

If your husband is emotionally distant despite your best efforts to help him to engage with you, don’t automatically assume that he doesn’t feel emotions. That is seldom the case. In counseling, these men typically report that they do feel emotion but that they just don’t express their feelings the way their wives want them to.

Some men project an emotional unavailability because that is what they have learned. Their own fathers may have modeled this. Men who grew up in homes where their fathers showed little emotion and acted as stern, no-nonsense disciplinarians don’t have a foundation for any other behavior. A strict authoritarian father who withholds tender emotions and fails to engage with his wife and family in casual and warm conversation often unwittingly sets his own son on the pathway toward the same kind of behavior. That isn’t to say a husband can’t learn to behave differently, but it does give a reason why he may act as he does. A wife can take some comfort in the fact that his actions really aren’t intended to be an insult to her, nor do they mean he doesn’t care.

Sometimes a wife whose husband is emotionally aloof will try to pressure him into talking about his feelings. Many have learned the hard way that this approach seldom works. Instead of talking, a husband may explain that he doesn’t know what she wants him to say, and then he will simply shut down. If she continues to pressure him to talk, she will only put more distance between them. Don’t try to force your husband to share his feelings. It won’t work and usually does more harm than good.

Dead-End Approaches

Another dead-end approach is to make comparisons. An approach like that is a sure way to tighten the emotional vise on a husband. Whatever causes him to be closed certainly will never be relaxed by making a comparison. The only thing he hears is that he doesn’t measure up to another woman’s husband. Never compare your husband to another man. It can do inestimable damage to any possibility of seeing him open up and begin to talk.

A third approach that won’t work is to use emotional leverage to open him up. Many wives will complain or even cry, expressing that they don’t feel loved. These expressions may be sincere. Wives may be understandably disillusioned about not feeling emotionally valued. They may have every right to complain, to cry, to scold, or to rant, but the outcome must be considered in advance. Here are some of the ways most emotionally absent husbands will react.

Identifying Unresolved Conflicts

If you recognize your own marriage in what has been said already, at least you can take heart in knowing that there are others in a similar situation. Yours is not an isolated experience. That alone can bring some encouragement.

My goal isn’t to vilify husbands who behave this way either. People are the way they are for various reasons. Something has caused your husband to be emotionally withdrawn. It’s very unlikely that one day he made a conscious decision to simply shut down emotionally and that he has been committed to that decision since then.

One area to explore is related to unresolved conflict in your marriage. Was there a time when your husband wasn’t emotionally absent? Did his behavior suddenly change? If so, what precipitated that change? Ask the Holy Spirit to show you and your husband whether a specific incident caused him to develop a habit of withdrawal.

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If your husband has always been emotionally absent to you, think back to the beginning of your relationship. Did you believe you could change him? Did you think that after you were married, he would behave differently? What was it about your husband that caused you to love him even though he was withdrawn? Look for the things you appreciated then and focus on them now. This won’t necessarily make your frustration disappear, but it will at least help you focus on the qualities that attracted you to him.

True Communication

If you have an emotionally absent husband, the most important consideration is whether you and he communicate clearly. He may resist communication, suggesting that everything is fine.

It is important for your husband to understand that even though things may be fine to him, you often feel as if he doesn’t value you or love you. When you talk to him about your feelings, describe the way you feel. Try not to sound as if you’re accusing him, or he will naturally feel attacked and become defensive.

Your initial goal isn’t for him to admit any guilt, but simply for him to understand you. That’s the first step. No change is possible until you both understand what the other is thinking and feeling.

Don’t expect your husband to pour out his thoughts on the subject. You know better than that. However, you can ask him to respond to you in a way that shows that he has listened and understood what you are saying. Don’t give a long speech about the subject. Briefly and simply describe how you feel. You might say, “I feel…” and then use feeling words, such as “unloved,” “unappreciated,” or “rejected.” Don’t say, “I feel like you don’t care.” That’s not a feeling, it’s an opinion—almost an accusation. At this point you want him to recognize your feelings, so focus specifically on that. Your goal at this point isn’t to change his behavior, but to be heard and understood. You’ll be amazed how much that step alone will help you.

If your husband discounts your feelings, suggesting that you shouldn’t feel that way or that he doesn’t know why you would feel that way, don’t become defensive. Instead, say something like, “Well, whether I should feel that way or not, it is how I feel. I need you to help me with this. I love you, and for you to work with me on this is one of the best ways I can think of for you to love me right now. Will you help me?”

After you have described your feelings to him, ask for feedback. You might say, “What did you hear me say? I want to be sure I’m being clear.” Don’t suggest that you want to be sure he understands. You want to focus not on his ability to understand, but on your ability to be clear. That can help prevent him from feeling defensive.

If he says he understands, don’t accept that generic statement. Ask him to tell you what he heard you say so you’ll know you’re on the same wavelength. He needs to restate what you’ve said in different words. If his response shows he has missed something, fill in the blanks and ask him again to tell you what he has heard.

These basic listening skills, developed by Drs. Dallas and Nancy Demmitt, can help you tremendously. Feeling that your husband has truly heard you and knowing that you have been understood are important first steps toward a successful resolution.

Adapted from When Wives Walk in Grace by Steve McVey

Copyright © 2013 Steve McVey, published by Harvest House Publishers, used with permission, all rights reserved.

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