Intimate Enemies

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” Intimate enemies refers to married couples having marital problems. Marital therapists have long noted that by the time a couple finds their way to a therapy office they are in this pattern of engage-withdraw with the husband complaining about her “unreasonable “ demands and outbursts, and the wife lamenting his indifference to what she is saying. In effect, there are two emotional realities in a couple, his and hers. The roots of these emotional differences, although they may be partly biological, can also be traced back to childhood, and to the separate emotional worlds boys and girls inhabit while growing up. One study of children’s friendships found that three-year olds say about half their friends are of the opposite sex; for five-year-olds it’s about 20%, and by age seven almost no boys or girls say they have a best friend of the opposite sex. Until teenagers start dating, these separate universes intersect little.

Boys and girls are taught very different lessons about handling emotions. In general, parents discuss emotions—with the exception of anger—more with their daughters than with their sons. Girls are exposed to more information about emotions than are boys; when parents make up stories to tell their preschool children, they use more emotion words when talking to daughters than to sons. When mothers play with their infants, they display a wider range of emotions to daughters than to their sons; when mothers talk to daughters about feelings, they discuss in more detail the emotional state itself than they do with their sons—though with the sons they go into more detail about the causes and consequences of emotions like anger.

Two researchers who have summarized the research on differences in emotions between the sexes, Leslie Brody and Judith Hall, propose that because girls develop facility with language more quickly than do boys, this leads them to be more experienced at articulating their feelings and more skilled than boys at using words to explore and substitute for emotional reactions such as physical fights. They note “boys, for whom the verbalization of affects is de-emphasized, may become largely unconscious of their emotional states, both in themselves and in others.

At age ten, roughly the same % of girls and boys are overtly aggressive, given to open confrontation when angered. However, by age 13, a telling difference between the sexes emerges: girls become more adept than boys at artful aggressive tactics like ostracism, vicious gossip, and indirect vendettas. By and large, boys simply continue being confrontational when angered, oblivious to these covert strategies. This is just one of the many ways the boys, and later men, are less sophisticated than the opposite sex in emotional skills.

Harvard’s Carol Gilligan notes that differences between boys and girls at play point to a key disparity between the sexes: boys take pride in a lone, tough-minded independence and autonomy, while girls see themselves as part of a web of connectedness. So boys are threatened by anything that might challenge their independence, while girls are more threatened by a rupture in their relationships. Deborah Tannen pointed out in her book “You Just Don’t Understand,” these differing perspectives mean that men and women want and expect very different things out of a conversation, with men content to talk about “things,” while women seek emotional connection.

A psychologist at the University of Texas, Ted Huston, who has studied couples in depth, observes, “To the wives, intimacy means talking things over, especially talking about the relationship itself. By and large, the men don’t understand what their wives want from them. Huston found that during courtship men were much more willing to spend time talking in ways that suited the wish for intimacy of their wives-to-be. But once married, as time went on the men—especially more traditional couples, spent less and less time talking in this way with their wives, finding a sense of closeness simply in doing things like gardening together rather than talking things over. Men tend to be somewhat Pollyannaish about the state of they marriage, while their wives are attuned to the trouble spots.

There are implications of this emotional gender gap for how couples handle the grievances and disagreements that any intimate relationship inevitably spawns. Specific issues such as how often a couple has sex, how to discipline children, or how much debt and savings a couple feels comfortable with are not what makes or breaks a marriage. Rather, it is how a couple discusses such sore points that matter for the fate of their marriage. Simply having reached an agreement about how to disagree is key to marital survival; men and women have to overcome the innate genre differences in approaching rocky emotions. Failing this, couples are vulnerable to emotional rifts that eventually can tear their relationship apart. These rifts are far more likely to develop if one or both partners have certain deficits in emotional intelligence.

John Gottman,a University of Washington psychologist, runs a laboratory that analyses the emotional glue that binds couples together, and the corrosive feelings that can destroy marriages. Couples conversations are videotaped in his laboratory and then subjected to hours of microanalysis designed to reveal the emotional currents at play. This mapping of the faults lines that may lead a couple to divorce makes a convincing case for the crucial role of emotional intelligence in the survival of a marriage. While couples talk sensors record the slightest flux in their physiology, a second-by-second analysis of their facial expressions detects the most fleeting and subtle nuance of feeling. After the session each partner comes separately to the lab and watches a video tape of the conversation, and narrates his or her secret thoughts during the heated moments of the exchange. Dr. Gotten is able to predict which couples will divorce within three years with 94% accuracy.

There are important differences between complaints and personal criticisms. In a complaint, one person states specifically what is upsetting, and criticizes the other’s action, not the person, about how it made the person feel. “When you forgot to pick up my clothes at the cleaner’s it made me feel like you don’t care about me.” This is an expression of basic emotional intelligence: assertive, not belligerent or passive. But in a personal criticism the grievance is used to launch a global attack on the person. For example, “You’re always so selfish and uncaring. It just proves I can’t trust you to do anything right.” This kind of criticism leaves the person on the receiving end feeling ashamed, disliked, blamed, and defective—all of which are more likely to lead to a defensive response than to steps to improve things.

The two arms of the fight-or-flight response each represents ways a spouse can respond to an attack. The most obvious is to fight back, lashing out in anger. That route typically ends in a fruitless shouting match. But the alternative response, fleeing, can be more pernicious, particularly when the “flight” is a retreat into stony silence. Stonewalling is the ultimate defense. The stonewaller just goes blank, in effect withdrawing from the conversation by responding with a stony expression and silence. Stonewalling showed up mainly in marriages that were heading for trouble; in 85% of these cases it was the husband who stonewalled in response to a wife who attacked with criticism and contempt. As a habitual response stonewalling is devastating to the health of a relationship: it cuts off all possibility of working out disagreements.

Gotten uses the term “flooding’ for the susceptibility to frequent emotional distress: Flooded husbands or wives are so overwhelmed by their partner’s negativity and their own reaction to it that they are swamped by dreadful, out-of-control feelings. People who are flooded cannot hear without distortion or respond with clear-headedness; they find it hard to organize their thinking and fall back on primitive reactions. They want things to stop, or to run or, sometimes to strike back. Flooding is a self-perpetuating emotional highjacking.

The technical description of flooding is in terms of heart rate rise from calm levels. At rest, the women’s heart rates are about 82 beats per minute, men’s about 72. Flooding begins at about 10 beats per minute above a person’s resting rate; if the heart reaches 100 beats per minute (as it can easily do during moments of rage or tears), then the body is pumping adrenaline and other hormones that keep distress high for some time. The moment of emotional highjacking is apparent from the heart rate: it can jump 10, 20, or even as many as 30 beats per minute within the space of a single heartbeat. Muscles tense; it can seem hard to breathe. There is a swamp of toxic feelings, an unpleasant wash of fear and anger that seems inescapable. This is clearly a dangerous point for a marriage.

Men are the vulnerable sex. Women, on average, do not mind plunging into the unpleasantness of a marital squabble nearly so much as do the men in their lives. Husbands are prone to flooding at a lower intensity of negativity than are their wives. More men than women react to they spouse’s criticism with flooding. Once flooding, husbands secrete more adrenaline into their bloodstream, and their adrenaline flow is triggered by lower levels of negativity on their wife’s part; it takes husbands longer to recover from flooding.

Men are more likely to be stonewallers and women are more likely to criticize their husbands in their assumed roles as emotional managers. There seems to be a fundamental incapability here. So what can be done?

In general, men and women need different emotional fine-tuning. For men, the advice is not to sidestep conflict, but to realize that when their wife brings up some grievance or disagreement, she may be doing it as an act of love trying to keep the relationship healthy and on course (but there may be other motives here). When grievances simmer, they build and build in intensity until there’s an explosion: when they are aired and worked out, it takes the pressure off. But husbands need to realize that anger or discontent is not synonymous with personal attack—their wives emotions are often simply underlines, emphasizing the strength of feelings about the matter.

Men also need to be on guard again short-circuiting the discussion by offering a practical solution too early on—it’s typically more important to a wife that she feel her husband hears her complaining and empathizes with her feelings. Neither party should make personal attacks.

When discussions or arguments become heated, it might be wise to agree to break off the discussion or argument now, and to resume it at a later time.

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