Counselors have opportunities to see patterns that emerge among people. Here, I think, is a pattern among men—not all men, but more than you might think.
“When my wife talks about our relationship—or anything else—and goes on for very long, I want to listen, but I go on overload pretty quick and soon don’t understand a word she is saying.”
Many men have their limits.
It can happen when…
A wife is processing some personal matters out loud. She walks through the highs and lows, mentions a difficult moment with a friend, gets tearful, and begins to sort things out. Meanwhile her husband is trying to listen but is unable to pick out what is most important—i.e., what he should do. The result is that he hears white noise, and the nature of white noise is that though you hear it at first, it gradually fades into the background, then it puts you to sleep.
Or perhaps the occasion for shutting down is a potentially encouraging conversation about their relational growth. These conversations might have the best intentions, and men can be doing their best to listen, but there comes a point when the words become a jumbled mess and the mental circuit responsible for the conversation simply goes kerflooey. He hears the individual pieces of the conversation, but finds it impossible to hold them all in his mind at once.
Another time men can shut down is when they are being criticized or think they are being criticized. Give anyone more than one hearty criticism a week and that person will get frustrated, hurt or shut down. If they shut down, they draw louder and more frequent criticisms and the cycle can get ugly.
Kin to this version of shutting down is when men are asked to participate in conversations with their spouses on matters in which they feel less competent. Though this sounds like a stereotype, men in general seem to be less skilled at talking about the details of relationships and emotions.
There are ways through it
First some words to the women: assume that your husbands actually want to hear. Most men I know actually want to listen to their spouses, unless they are hearing relentless criticism. Don’t start with the conviction that he either dislikes you or is a major sinner. Instead, try to understand why he shuts down or seems to shut down.
Second, aim to accommodate. For example, what is the one thing you want your husband to understand or do? If you are someone who likes to think out loud through things in your life, ask him for ten minutes during which he doesn’t have to do anything except try to hear emotions and ask questions if he is lost.
Some words to the men: if you are less than enthusiastic about all this, repent and repent some more. Talking is a good thing. The kingdom of heaven is a place where there are lots of words being spoken by God, to God, and to each other, and you might as well get accustomed to it now. If you are relatively mute when your wife wants to engage you, you are probably not talking to the Lord either. Silence might be your refuge because it leaves you feeling innocent and even righteous, but we can sin in what we say, and we can sin with our indifferent silence too.
Second, think in terms of growth. You always want to grow. That too is the way of God’s kingdom. You want to grow in your conversations with your wife. Work with her so you can move forward. Try to identify the problem and offer ideas for a solution. You might hear what you think is criticism when your spouse simply wants to grow in unity that is forged by words.
Third, if you envision yourself as a slower processer and are unable to respond at the time, and you say that you will think about it and get back to her, then get back to her. If not, you have violated your word to her and are guilty of falsehood.
Together: talk with humility, be open with what is on your heart. No resignation. No hopelessness. Generate some questions. What has been an encouraging conversation to him? What has been discouraging? What helps your conversations? What hurts? How can she speak about things on her heart without him feeling like he is walking into a minefield of expectations?
Too many couples have become hopeless about fruitful conversations and have opted for the relative peace that comes with simply coordinating schedules and being co-managers of daily life. In contrast, God promises growing unity to his people (John 17), and conversations are a prominent means for that growth. When a struggle in life meets a promise of God, hope and then growth are sure to follow.