So, I wonder, does this explain why, when I reach out and tell Hugh I'm feeling isolated from him—on the assumption that this will foster closeness—he gets defensive or withdraws? Do my verbal attempts to reestablish intimacy make him feel inadequate? Is that why he gets that glazed look in his eye and is suddenly compelled to watch men tossing balls on TV?
Yes, yes, and yes, replies Love. And our responses aren't all in our heads. When a man feels shamed by a woman's criticism, his body is flooded with cortisol, a stress hormone whose effect is decidedly unpleasant. A woman experiences a similar cortisol rush whenever her husband shouts at her, ignores her, or otherwise does something that scares her and seems to threaten their bond. Love compares the sensation that accompanies the sudden release of cortisol to sticking your finger in an electric socket, followed by the sort of "sugar blues" crash that occurs after you polish off a few too many glazed doughnuts. "A cortisol hangover can last for hours in men and up to several days in women," Love says. "It's no wonder both sexes try to prevent it."
Okay, this makes sense, but if talking about relationships makes men twitchy and drunk on cortisol, then what's the alternative? Charades?
"It's the connection, stupid!" exclaims Love, quickly adding that it's not me personally she's calling stupid. "Everyone—men, women, myself included—needs to learn that before we can communicate with words, we need to connect nonverbally. We can do that in simple ways, through touch, sex, doing things together. The deepest moments of intimacy occur when you're not talking."
Stosny puts it this way: "We need to stop trying to assess the bonding verbally and instead let the words come out of the bonding." Interestingly, he adds, "When couples feel connected, men want to talk more and women need to talk less, so they meet somewhere in the middle. Being aware of the fear-shame dynamic helps."
To illustrate the point, Love tells the story of an afternoon when she and her husband were lying in bed naked after showering. "I was wondering if he'd initiate sex, when all of a sudden in my mind I crossed over to his side of the bed and got a sense of what it was like to be him, never knowing if he's going to be accepted or rejected. It was terrifying. I understood then how deeply ashamed that must make him feel," she recalls. "It was an epiphany that changed my life." She immediately began emphasizing compassion in her work with clients, and has come to believe—as does Stosny—that it's even more crucial to the success of a long-term relationship than love.
The tricky part is that men and women must empathize with vulnerabilities they don't feel to the same degree—namely fear and shame. To do this requires what the authors call binocular vision, in which each partner makes a conscious effort to consider the other's point of view. "The problem is that when you're angry, you're wrong even when you're right because you can't see the other person's perspective," Stosny says. "That's when you lose the thing you long for most, the connection."
We Hear You!