I see it over and over again in the clinical office. A couple comes in for marital counseling and I watch as the wife desperately tries to get her husband to engage in the conversation. After watching her scramble for his attention over the course of an hour or two, it becomes clear to me: we are dealing with a classic case of the disconnected husband. The disconnected husband plays his emotional cards extremely close to his chest and makes it a point not to be open with his spouse. One of the most common signs of the disconnected husband is that he doesn’t reveal or show his actual feelings around anyone, especially his wife. While she may deeply desire that her husband open up and express his emotions, he seems intent on bottling up what’s inside emotionally and cognitively. As I watch these predictable scenes play out in the counseling room, I know what will usually follow a disconnected husband’s lack of engagement…his wife’s tears. She almost always begins to show significant hurt and frustration as she becomes overwhelmed with her lack of ability to get through to her man. Although you might think this emotional display would encourage the husband to at least respond with a comforting word, the wife’s emotion almost always elicits a deep (sometimes visual) discomfort in her disconnected husband. He chases his own discomfort with irritation, frustration, criticism, or more withdrawal. This only hurts his wife more and creates deeper emotions that she expresses verbally, which causes more criticism and more withdrawal from the husband. This pursue-withdrawal cycle is the unhealthy dance of the disconnected husband and his spurned wife. It’s a negative communication pattern that I see on a consistent basis while counseling couples. But my hunch is that this is probably a communication style that many of you see playing out in your own marriage every day. If this scene seems familiar to you and you are indeed stuck in a negative communication cycle with a disconnected man, I have several suggestions that might help you break the negative cycles and begin to see your husband open up in real ways:
1.Understand your disconnected husband.
There is no doubt that there are some men that enter marriage without the skill set to truly connect with their wife. After all, our culture doesn’t really socialize men to connect emotionally, but instead trains boys to focus on what they can do physically with their body, like play sports or lift weights and what they can do intellectually with their mind, like solve math problems or engineer solutions to problems. The world of connection and emotion are truly foreign to some husbands and this lack of training typically takes its most significant toll on the marital relationship. This insight will hopefully give you empathy into your husband’s world, which will hopefully give you more motivation to respond to him with grace.
2. Recognize that he probably doesn’t know he is disconnected.
Most men who are truly disconnected think they are great husbands because they are providing for you and the family. They gain their sense of self-identity as a husband from working hard, fixing things in the physical environment, and being the stable rock in the relationship. The truth is, your disconnected husband thinks that he is doing everything that you need, and he just isn’t aware that you are craving a deeper more intimate connection. He probably doesn’t even understand what deeper connection feels like or looks like in operation. Again, your insight here into your disconnected husband’s psyche is incredibly important. The more you can tell yourself the truth about his understanding of a healthy husband, the more you can position his typical response to you as a reflection of his desire to be a good husband.
3. Affirm his determination to be a good husband.
Even though your disconnected husband seems impenetrable emotionally, let’s be clear, you can deeply affect him with your words. When I say, “Affirm him,” I don’t mean say some sappy insincere comments about how hard he is trying “to be a good husband.” I mean genuinely express admiration and gratitude for what he does. If you are ever going to break through the tough emotional skin of your disconnected husband, you are basically going to have to recognize who he is as a man and value it. If you want a clue as to how you can sell this to your husband in a believable way, think back to when you were dating and were truly impressed by him. What did you say that made him light up? What did he do to make you feel special? He still needs to hear these things. Believe it or not, he craves your affirmation and recognition.
4. Communicate clearly when he does something that feels like it breeds connection.
It helps emotionally disconnected guys start to feel closer if you can give them a road map to the things that actually make you feel connected. He needs specific information and education from you about the behaviors that pull you in and make you feel valued. For instance, say, “I really felt close to you when you made me dinner.” Or “I felt so valued when you told my boss that I was smart.” Remember, he wasn’t socialized to say these kinds of things. He needs you to coach him on how to speak the language of emotions.
While these strategies will not create a deeply connected man in 24 hours, they will facilitate the kind of interaction with your disconnected husband that over time will allow him to develop the skill set to acknowledge his emotions toward you in very real and tangible ways. Make the decision today to abandon the unhealthy dance with your disconnected husband and in the end, you will see that he does indeed have the capacity for real connection.