I saw a meme recently on social media that had the punch line of, “Humans are basically houseplants with anxiety.” How true is that! Physically, we’re about 60% water and the rest is just the stuff that keeps the water from leaking. But when it comes to the realm of emotions and relationships, anxiety is what keeps things interesting.
Anxiety exists in all of us. It even exists between us. The anxiety that I’m talking about is simply emotional energy. Heat. You experience it when you walk into a tense meeting or a three-year-old’s birthday party. You’ve felt it when a parent gave you that look or your spouse says, “We need to talk.” This kind of anxiety is normal and natural. It’s not good or bad, it simply is.
The problems come in to play with how we react to anxiety. When the heat goes up in the room, different people react in different ways. Some can tolerate the heat and lean into the emotional tension while others sense the heat and head for the hills. Anxiety requires something from us whenever it shows up, but not everyone knows how to meet those requirements.
This is one of those places in life where the difference between men and women can be profound, and those differences can lead to some very destructive patterns in our relationships. The reason for this difference is that most men were not given a wide range of responses to utilize when anxiety comes calling. No matter who you are, you can almost hear the things we’ve all said to our boys, “Never let ‘em see you sweat,” “Big boys don’t cry,” “Man up!” There’s an old saying that goes, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail.”
This is why so many men struggle to separate love from control. Whether he’s a cop or a coach, he’s been trained that when he walks into an anxious situation, it’s on him to take control. And to be quite honest, we want them to be trained that way. Someone needs to be that guy when the situation arises.
However, when that guy gets home and starts to wonder where his wife is or who she’s texting or where all the money went, he often goes back into that toolbox and grabs the same old tool. It can look different depending on the situation, but it all boils down to her feeling controlled. His anxiety went up because he felt out of control. He applied the solution that he knows to apply to the out-of-control feeling. And she ends up catching all of the heat.
Of course, he didn’t “mean to be controlling,” he says, but this is where things have to change. Guys, when she lets you know that something you’re doing makes her feel bad, stop. Listen. Listen some more. Ask questions. Make sure you understand what the behavior was that elicited that feeling in her, and then figure out what you can do differently. It’s not about whether you meant to make her feel that way or not. That doesn’t matter. Arguing about who is right and who is wrong at this point only prolongs the suffering and doesn’t get you anywhere.
Men must realize, sooner rather than later, that most of us have a blind spot when it comes to responding to anxiety in all of its forms including insecurity and fear. The desire to lower anxiety leads to a scramble for power that leaves those around us with three choices and two of them are bad. They can conform, which lowers anxiety for the moment but creates resentment. They can run, which either leads to more insecurity or the end of the relationship. Or they can stand their ground and require you to hear their voice. Honor that third decision by listening. Let her coach you into a new way of responding to your anxiety with tools like compassion, empathy, and vulnerability. And if that’s not enough, reach out and get some help.
Most guys I work with don’t want to be controlling. Most don’t even understand that what they’re doing IS controlling. But with a little time, effort and coaching, men can and will rise to the occasion. It may feel like they are speaking a foreign language at first, but when they figure out how to use the new tools and they give themselves permission to use them, both partners are empowered to create a new kind of relationship.