Over the last decade, I’ve spent thousands of hours working with men in individual, couples, and group psychotherapy, and I continually find myself bumping up against a dynamic that most therapists are intimately familiar with—a pattern in heterosexual couples called “wife demands / husband withdraws,” coined by university researchers Paul Schrodt and Andrew Ledbetter back in 2007. Study findings suggest this pattern is a powerful predictor of marital dissatisfaction and divorce. In this dynamic, the female partner seeks more emotional connection and intimacy from her male partner, and is frequently disappointed with his failure to meet those needs. The male partner, meanwhile, is often frustrated by his inability to please his partner and responds by shutting down. I’ve spoken with many therapists who’ve encountered this dynamic and express their own frustration at having to “pull teeth” in their work with emotionally withdrawn men.
It was only after I started doing men’s psychotherapy groups that I began to understand the underlying reason many of these couples are stuck. Without their female partners in the room, men opened up about their relationship dissatisfactions in ways I rarely heard when their partners were present. It occurred to me that these men were afraid to talk with their partners about what was bothering them. When I first raised this concept with my male clients, they balked and became defensive. After all, the dominant—and toxic—narrative is that all men are emotionally strong, without fail, and never acknowledge any fear, particularly regarding women. Soon enough, however, it dawned on these men that they are, in fact, afraid, and exploring this in therapy often leads to a new understanding of themselves and their relationship. Some fears that commonly surface in our work include being controlled by female partners, failing to please them, appearing inadequate to them, and being abandoned by them.
It’s taken years for me to be able to unearth these hidden fears and then work with them, but I find it’s transformed my work with many of the heterosexual couples that end up in my office.
When Matthew’s wife, Susan, strode determinedly into my office for the first time, he was following sheepishly behind. I’d learned during our initial phone consultation that Matthew and Susan had been married for seven years and had two daughters. Susan was an attorney and Matthew worked in finance—demanding careers that frequently spilled over into evenings and weekends.
“I’m at my wit’s end with Matthew,” Susan blurted out immediately. “I just don’t know what else to do. I’m tired of always having to be the grown-up in the family. It’s not just that I do most of the cooking, cleaning, and childcare; some days it feels like I’ve got a third child.”
Matthew looked away, clearly irritated.
“Matthew,” I reached out, “what’s it like to hear this?”
“I do a hell of a lot more around the house than most of my guy friends,” he said. “So much, in fact, that I never have a free moment to myself! It doesn’t matter how much I do. For Susan, it’s never enough.” Matthew glanced over and saw that Susan was crying. “This is exactly what happens when we argue,” he said, his voice rising. “Whenever we try to have a rational adult conversation, Susan gets upset.” Susan’s crying grew louder. “See?! This is exactly why I didn’t want to come here!” Matthew huffed.
They were locked in a mutually destructive cycle: Matthew would detach, Susan would get upset, and Matthew would detach even more, making Susan even more upset. I suspected that Matthew’s withdrawal and disengagement were defenses triggered by his hidden fears of hard conversations that could potentially lead to conflict. But before I could make any progress with them as a couple, I’d need to engage Matthew more fully in therapy by meeting with him alone, where he wouldn’t be triggered by Susan, and help him develop more awareness of these fears. Luckily, they both agreed to meet with me individually before resuming couples work.
Calling a Time-Out
The following week, Matthew came to our individual session looking nervous and uncomfortable. I’ve learned it’s important to convey to the men I work with that I don’t think they’re the problem or that something’s wrong with them. I do this by speaking in relational terms that help shift away from individual blame like, “It takes two people to get into a mess like this, and it’s going to take both of you to work your way out of it.”
Once Matthew realized I was listening without judgment, his body relaxed, and he began unloading years’ worth of frustrations about his marriage. “Like I was saying last week,” he began, “I can never please Susan. She criticizes me all the time. It’s like nothing I do is good enough for her.”
“How much of this have you shared with her?” I asked.
Matthew looked at me as if the answer was obvious. “You saw—every time I start to tell her, things get worse. What’s the point?”
“It sounds like part of you is afraid of Susan,” I offered.
Matthew sat up straight, clearly offended by the idea. But then, a look of realization came over his face. Together, we started to go back through his list of complaints about the relationship, but this time through the lens of his fears. Matthew began to understand how afraid he was of Susan’s disapproval, and his defenses began to fall away from there.
A few days later, I had my individual session with Susan. Since she was considering ending the relationship, my primary goal was to form enough of an alliance with her to enlist her patience. I asked her how she felt about our initial couples session.
“I have mixed feelings,” she said. “On the one hand, I appreciate that Matthew was willing to come to the appointment; on the other, it was discouraging to watch us fall right back into the same hurtful pattern.”
“Matthew and I did some important work in our individual session,” I told her. “If you can hang in there a little longer, I think you’ll see the payoff.”
She agreed to try.
Change from the Outside-In
After the individual sessions, Matthew and Susan were ready to resume couples work.
“Susan,” I began. “I’d like to start this session by having Matthew fill you in on some of what we discussed individually.”
“You have no idea how absolutely undone I am any time you seem disappointed with me,” he said to her. “My dad never said much to my mom about how he felt, but I watched him express his love by taking care of her, by always trying to please her. So any time you’re upset, even if it’s not about me, I can’t help feeling like I’ve failed.”
I could tell that Susan was stunned and absolutely riveted at the same time. She turned to Matthew and took his hand in hers. “I just assumed that you refused to be more involved in the family because we weren’t important to you.”
Observing this exchange, I was stunned, too. It doesn’t always go this smoothly with couples after just three sessions—even on a good day. Often, when a typically defensive male partner expresses himself vulnerably—the way Matthew did with Susan—it will take his female partner time to fully trust what he’s telling her. Initially, she may say something like, “You’re just saying that because we’re in therapy and he told you to.” Sometimes, overwhelmed by the shift in her partner’s approach, she may become defensive: “So now everything’s my fault for upsetting you and making you feel like a failure.” Because Susan and Matthew’s mutual respect, trust, and appreciation hadn’t been eroded by their conflicts, they were able to halt the downward spiral I’d seen play out in their initial session sooner than most. Now, my job was to help them leverage this shift as they built a consistently stronger, more intimate connection.
Several weeks into therapy, Susan and Matthew began showing a lot less judgment and a lot more curiosity about each other. The progress they’d made helped them feel more willing to take the kind of emotional risks that would help them reconnect. I decided to suggest an experiment that I knew would be challenging, but if they were willing to give it a try, might lead to less mutual resentment about the responsibilities of managing their family.
“Susan,” I began, “I’d like you to go out of town for a few days and leave Matthew alone to take care of the home and kids. I don’t want you to do anything in advance to help Matthew, like setting up playdates or preparing meals. Matthew, I want you to handle that on your own.”
In our individual session, Matthew had talked with me about feeling micromanaged by Susan whenever he cared for their children. Having the chance to care for them alone, I thought, might give him confidence—and help Susan recognize that he could step up to take on a greater share of household duties.
They agreed to try it out.
“So, how’d it go?” I asked when they returned one week later.
“Well,” Susan began, “I came home to a somewhat messy home but happy children. And I could tell that Matthew felt good about himself and was excited to see me. That hasn’t been the case for a long time.”
Matthew agreed. “While I’ve always objected to Susan micromanaging my parenting, it gave me an excuse to not face my own insecurities about being a dad,” he said. “The weekend gave me a lot more confidence in myself as a partner, and that makes me want to do more.”
At our next session, however, they reported having a tough week. Even though Matthew had made a concerted effort to speak kindly and vulnerably while expressing his fears and needs, their discussions hadn’t gone well. Susan admitted she’d felt unusually angry at Matthew. “He doesn’t listen,” she said. “He isn’t affectionate. I asked him to make dinner, and he forgot. He took care of the kids for a weekend and then completely dropped the ball.” I could tell Susan was confused by her own reactivity, so I focused on her and asked her to stop for a moment and notice what she might be feeling under her list of complaints.
“Angry,” she said. “But underneath, I feel lonely and unappreciated.”
As I invited her to stay with her feelings, she grew pensive. “I know it doesn’t make sense, but what keeps coming up is the phrase, ‘You’re trying to get off the hook.’ I’m glad things are improving but I’m also scared. Last weekend was good, and it helped, but I feel so resentful! What you did—taking care of everything for a few days, shopping, making meals, getting the kids dressed, taking them to playdates—that’s what I do all the time. I’m glad you did it and I resent you for not having done it more all these years.”
The gentle expression on Matthew’s face, and his relaxed posture, communicated that he was listening, and that her perspective made sense. He assured her that he wasn’t trying to get off the hook. He did appreciate her, he said, and he wanted to grow and do more.
The weekend-away experiment had begun the process of building new goodwill in their marriage, but it had also unearthed some of Susan’s longstanding resentment toward Matthew. Sharing her feelings more openly with him in a respectful way gave them both a renewed sense of hope.
The Men’s Group
Because of the goodwill and trust we’d developed, I decided that it was time for the next step: referring Matthew to a men’s group I run. In my clinical experience, men’s groups are the most effective way to help men develop emotional awareness and intimacy. It’s tricky to refer one member of a couple for more help without that person feeling blamed or pathologized, but since couples therapy had been going well, I thought Matthew would be willing to give it a try.
In the group, Matthew noticed how uncomfortable he became when other group members were openly emotional—almost as uncomfortable as he’d become when Susan got emotional. He also saw his own behavior mirrored in other group members, who also tended to withdraw or get defensive when their partners got emotional.
The more Matthew attended the group, the more he began to understand that his discomfort with Susan’s emotions stemmed from his discomfort with his own feelings. He began to see that while withdrawing was, initially, an effective defense, in the long run it just made things worse. The more he worked on getting more comfortable sharing feelings in group, the more comfortable he became being more emotionally open with Susan—which was what she’d wanted all along. As a result, he started to feel less scared about getting into conflicts with Susan, which made more room for Susan to be open about her feelings with him.
One day, they came to a session beaming with pride.
“The other day we started getting into another version of the same old argument, which was so discouraging,” Susan said. “But this time, we both did it differently.”
“Susan started to make some of the same criticisms she’d made before, but when she realized what she was doing, she stopped and checked in with me to see how I was doing. That immediately put me at ease. It helped me listen in a more caring and receptive way.”
As our work progressed, Matthew recognized that underneath his fears of disappointing Susan lay a much deeper fear that she’d eventually leave him. Since he’d been raised to believe that his value as a person was limited to the acts of service he did for others, it made sense for him to believe that people would eventually leave him if he let them down.
Susan’s growing understanding that Matthew’s tendency to shut down had been his way of protecting himself from what he was feeling marked a profound shift for her too, opening a door to new empathy and compassion. “I’ve been angry at Matthew for so long because of what I assumed was his unwillingness to hear me or take me seriously,” she said. “But I’ve come to understand that his withdrawal wasn’t meant to punish me, but to protect himself. I had no idea how scared he was to mess up. I didn’t understand that I’m so important to Matthew that he’s terrified of losing me.”
Susan, too, had begun working on herself. She was learning to express herself assertively, rather than allowing resentments to emerge in critical demands, judgments, and passive aggression. She’d begun experimenting with new ways of soothing the sense of panic she often felt whenever Matthew began to withdraw. She began to experience how much more smoothly their life together flowed when she refrained from blaming Matthew and being critical and instead talked openly and directly about her feelings and needs.
Running a family with two young children and two demanding careers didn’t get any easier for them, but after three years, Susan and Matthew left couples therapy feeling better equipped to handle stressful moments together as partners.
“I feel like I’m falling in love with my husband all over again,” Susan said in our final session. “Only this time it’s a more mature love, because I understand so much more about who he is and how we work best together.”
It’s particularly satisfying for me to work with men like Matthew, who enter therapy with a good deal of skepticism but eventually come to embrace the work enthusiastically. Learning that underneath men’s emotional avoidance often lies fear—the root of so many relationship problems—has been a game-changer in my work with couples. When we therapists acknowledge those fears and learn to work with them, we can help couples achieve the kind of closeness they yearn for.
By Alexandra Solomon
I’ve been a couples therapist for 25 years, and I know, down to the marrow of my bones, the pattern about which Weiss writes. I’ve learned over the years that men (especially men who are partnered with women) hang a large part of their identity on how they look in their partner’s eyes—how they’re perceived by their partner, and the degree to which they feel they’re held in warm regard. When a man outsources his self-esteem, he’s demonstrating that he’s been a good listener: he’s listened to the patriarchal messages that say his worth rests upon his latest conquest, paycheck, or job title. This is a precarious foundation for self-esteem to rest upon, and a heavy responsibility for the women to share in.
When I share this perspective with women, they invariably look puzzled, as they’re convinced that nothing they say or do “gets through” to their male partner. The self-protective strategies he engages when his partner is upset—whether they manifest as defensiveness, withdrawal, or escalation—mean that neither of them has a clue about the tender question that hides beneath his behavior: Am I enough for you?
I appreciate and admire that Weiss is doing work with men in community, because one of the most common complaints I hear from women is that they feel burdened to “grow their men up.” When a man joins a men’s group, there’s an obvious benefit for him, and there’s a twin benefit for the intimate relationship. Because men are offering each other witnessing, corrective emotional experiences—and a safe space to be accountable—a female partner is relieved of that emotional labor. Also, the gesture of stepping away from his work or time with her to prioritize his emotional health and growth offers her comfort and hope that she’s not the only one “doing the work.” Like affinity groups based on race, ethnicity, and sexuality, men’s group work is a unique opportunity and, dare I say, a responsibility, for male and masculine-presenting clinicians—one that female and feminine-presenting clinicians can’t offer in quite the same way.
I have two minor concerns with what Weiss has shared with us. First, he writes that men are “afraid of their partners,” but I’d have preferred that he write that men are afraid of their partners’ reactions to them, or that men are afraid of the feelings evoked inside of them in the face of their wives’ emotions. Although he goes on to articulate that nuance, the idea that women are scary carries worrisome echoes of patriarchal ideas about women’s overwhelming emotions and reactions. I also wish Weiss had acknowledged that pursuer/distancer dynamics play out in couples of all gender identities and expressions, as well as among cisgendered mixed-sex couples with a demanding husband and a withdrawing wife.
I found Weiss’ description of his work with Matthew and Sara to be rich and illuminating, including the individual work he does with each partner, how he disinvites blame, and how he worked with what marriage expert William Doherty calls the leaning-out partner. I loved the moment when Matthew shared his fear of disappointing Sara, and she took his hand and owned the story she’d been telling herself (that she doesn’t matter). This exchange is what renowned couples therapist Sue Johnson would call “a softening.” Finally, I appreciated Weiss normalizing that creating lasting change can take years. Overall, I appreciated having a front-row seat for exploring how Weiss weaves together intrapsychic dynamics, relational patterns, gender-role expectations, and community care.
ILLUSTRATION BY SALLY WERN COMPORT
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