Richard Nicastro, PhD, through the eyes of “Nina,” explores what it can look like when protective love turns into hopeless frustration.
If you’re a woman in a committed relationship, I’d like you to think about how your husband/partner reacts to you when you’re vulnerable — do your vulnerabilities bring out the best in him? Or does he react with annoyance, frustration or even anger?
One wife wanted to share what she learned about her husband after completing six months of couples counseling. As you read Nina’s insights, see if anything she’s discovered applies to your own relationship. Sometimes we can find pearls of wisdom on someone else’s journey, even when the specifics differ.
(I’m handing the blog reins over to Nina at this point so that you can hear from her directly…)
My husband and I have our differences and we’ve learned to compromise over the years, but overall we have a loving, solid marriage.
He’s always been quiet. When we met he was a little more talkative, but even then, it paled in comparison to how much I need to communicate. I’ve stopped trying to get him to talk more. It was unfair to him (since he’s never been talkative) and in all honesty, my failed attempts only led me to be more frustrated with him.
After fifteen years of marriage and a stint in couples counseling, I’ve learned to appreciate the following about Edward:
♦ Dedication and loyalty matter more to him than expressing his feelings;
♦ He “shows up” everyday for us by supporting the family and by being a really good listener for me and our three daughters;
♦ When he shuts down emotionally it’s because he’s feeling overwhelmed. This is how he copes. I’ve learned not to take this personally. He’s not running away emotionally since he always finds his way back to me when he’s less overwhelmed. I’ve learned to give him his space at these times.
♦ And the biggest thing I’ve discovered about my husband is that he takes it personally when I’m upset (even if it has nothing to do with him). Our couples counselor pointed out this pattern. You see, Edward doesn’t necessarily become upset or unhappy for me. Instead he becomes frustrated with me (not all the time, of course, but enough times over the years that it became an issue between us).
This begs the question: Why would someone who loves you become upset with you when you’re most vulnerable?
It’s easy to see your husband or boyfriend as cruel if/when he gets upset with you in these moments.
But Edward isn’t cruel. He’s kind, loving and wants to make me happy. Yes, the argument can be made that he is unsympathetic and uncaring if my upset-ness leads him to become frustrated with me. And I’ve told him so—I’ve never been timid about confronting him. But I kept coming back to the question I raised earlier. Considering his caring demeanor, his reaction didn’t make any sense.
Understanding Your Man: When Protective Love Turns to Helpless Frustration
Oddly enough, I’ve learned that it’s Edward’s commitment to my happiness that helps explain his negative reactions to my unhappiness. When I’m not happy, in Edward’s mind, he’s let me down. He’s failed to protect me. And if he’s trying his best to comfort and support me (and take away my pain) — if he’s given his all and I’m still troubled about something — then he really takes an emotional hit. He feels like a complete failure.
As our counselor explained, in those moments the man who loves and wants to protect his wife is turned into an ineffectual husband who must now stand by and watch his wife suffer.
But rather than share his helplessness with me and talk about what he’s truly feeling, things get quickly turned around in his mind and I become the problem. So he can now be angry with me rather than feel like a complete failure. Our counselor said that many men aren’t aware that this is what is actually going on. Edward did say that it sometimes feels like I’m placing obstacles in the way that prevent him from pulling me out of whatever I’m struggling with emotionally. If that’s what he’s thinking, his frustration starts to make sense even though it’s unfounded.
The good news is that in hindsight he realizes his frustration is about him and not me doing something to make him frustrated. This doesn’t mean he’ll never feel that way again, but his realization is a breath of fresh air.
So if your man gets upset with you whenever you are emotionally vulnerable (sad, anxious/worried, hurt), could it be that he feels totally helpless in the face of your pain? Could it be that his anger is one way he deals with his helplessness?
If so, this is a great starting point for important discussions.5