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I have been with my boyfriend “Mark” for one year, and we have a great time together. We have talked about wanting to have a relationship that progresses towards marriage, but we aren’t in a rush to do so immediately. He is 35, I am 37, and we have everything I was hoping to find with a partner, except for one major flaw: our communication. A lot of men I know have a hard time communicating their thoughts and feelings, and some have even told me in jest that they don’t even have thoughts and feelings. I don’t think that’s true. But Mark seems to struggle with talking about things that bother him, shutting down until the point that he’s overwhelmed and takes it out on me by being rude and insulting.
Examples of our communication breakdown: Friday night he came over, we made and ate dinner, and we watched a movie together on the couch. We didn’t talk much, but I figured that was because we were watching the movie. I started to get tired, so I said that I was going to start winding down for bed and asked if he was joining me. He mumbled “sure” and followed me to bed, but he just rolled over and ignored me; there was no cuddling, no goodnight, and no attempts at sex, which is unusual. So I asked if everything was ok and he said yes and that he was just tired. I couldn’t think of anything that had happened that would have upset him, but I sat there racking my brain until I fell asleep.
Saturday we met with our morning running group, but he still seemed “off” and wasn’t talking to me much. Again, my inquiring if everything was ok was met with “Yep.” We then had an uncomfortable breakfast that felt tense, and then we had to start preparing for a barbecue that we had been planning for a month. I asked him for his help with some very specific tasks to prepare for our guests and he seemed grumbly the entire time although he still pitched in to help. The barbecue went smoothly, but at the end of the night, after everyone had gone home and I was cleaning up, he started making insulting jabs, complaining about me being bossy and saying a lot of negative things about “this stupid party.” It was the first time he mentioned not wanting to have our friends over; he had been excited about it all week. I responded out of anger and told him I was not going to listen to him being a jerk to me after he had ignored me for the past two days, and I left to meet up with my friends who had gone to the neighborhood bar after the barbecue.
Sunday morning he came over and helped me do the remaining of cleaning and we stayed at home watching movies and recovering from the late night of drinking, but there was limited conversation and no mention of our argument. After he left Sunday night, I sent him a text and asked him if we could talk about what happened. He then apologized and attributed his two-day foul mood to work stress and not knowing how to deal with it and not wanting to burden me with it, but he agreed we should talk about it after work on Monday. I also apologized for my angry response to him and was looking forward to clearing the air on Monday.
This pattern has occurred four times in the last six months, and he always says it’s work stress and we never really talk about it afterwards, so I was thinking it would be important for us to figure out how to stop this pattern because it will start to be destructive to our otherwise very happy relationship. But when he came over Monday, he did everything he could to avoid the discussion. Even when I finally brought it up, he lay his head on my shoulder and wouldn’t talk. I told him what I thought and felt, and he just kept saying that he was sorry and he would not take out his frustrations on me again. I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable that he was shutting down while having this conversation we agreed to have: he wasn’t looking at me, was taking an almost fetal position, and his voice was very quiet.
Is it possible that this goes deeper than “men don’t communicate like women” and he is incapable of having difficult conversations? How can I make him more comfortable having those difficult but necessary conversations? How can I help him to open up and talk about those stresses like work, etc., before he becomes overwhelmed and lashes out? Is this something we can navigate on our own or do we need professional help navigating this? — Needing Better Communication
Yeah, this isn’t about “men not communicating like women.” I don’t even know what that means, really. I’ve known women who aren’t crazy about discussing their feelings, and I’ve known plenty of men who can and will express their concerns. To gender stereotype the way we communicate does a disservice to all of us. There may be things, in general, women are more forthcoming about, and there may be things that, in general, men don’t get as deep about, but what you’re describing — this stonewalling and curling up in a fetal position and lashing out–most certainly is not a “man thing.” And when you say it’s a pattern — four times in six months and you’ve only been together a year — that is quite concerning.
Obviously, I can’t say what is going on with your boyfriend. But I can say that this is more than feeling overwhelmed by work. There’s at least one, and maybe multiple, issues at play here — potentially buried anger or anger management stuff, depression, anxiety, possibly even some form of social disability (like high functioning autism) that makes connecting on an emotional level very challenging. Note: I am definitely NOT diagnosing him — merely suggesting possibilities that could explain the pattern you describe and to further suggest that whatever is going on is something that demands more help and guidance than you alone can provide. Your boyfriend would benefit from some therapy, and maybe, if he agrees that this pattern is longterm and pre-dates you, a diagnosis could be helpful in seeking treatment and support.
So, what can you do, specifically? Encourage him to speak to a professional (a doctor first to rule out a medical explanation and to potentially refer him to a therapist or psychologist). Tell him that you love him and would like to pursue a future with him but can’t do that if he’s never going to express concerns to you and is going to continue emotionally shutting down and blaming his avoidance and foul mood on “work stress” that you couldn’t possibly understand or wouldn’t want to hear about.
There’s a reason he is avoiding revealing his thoughts and feelings to you. And, to be frank, if you say you know “a lot of men” who also have trouble expressing their thoughts and feelings to you — some of whom even claim they don’t have any — I wonder if there’s also a reason you are attracting those men. Do you like the idea of fixing them? Being the one to get them to finally open up–to finally find their true selves? Is there something seductive to you about the strong, silent type of man? And does that seduction start to wear off after a few months when you realize how hard it is to maintain a relationship (or friendship) with someone who doesn’t reveal anything deep about himself — who keeps things very surface-level? These are questions worth exploring on your end while your boyfriend explores — with a therapist, ideally — his own questions and behavior and patterns. And if he refuses to seek help finding the source of his avoidance and stonewalling, you have a choice: stay with him in this relationship that likely has no happy future or MOA. If you choose the latter, I would urge you to do your own avoidance going forward: avoid the men who ‘OK’ everything to death and claim to not have many thoughts or feelings to share. They’re either lying or they’re seriously shallow, and I can’t imagine you’re looking for either of those traits for a long-term relationship.
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