Why don't some men realise it's over until it's too late?

"Men hope [the problem] will go away, while women get fed up with the lack of emotional connection and simply cut the knot."

"Men hope [the problem] will go away, while women get fed up with the lack of emotional connection and simply cut the knot." Photo: Stocksy

Last week, the Huffington Post spoke to a handful of men about the moment they knew their marriage was over. The answers, which ranged from the straightforward to the soulful, carried a theme: most of them didn't know until it was too late. One only knew when his wife moved out; another when he gave his wife explicit permission to see the man she'd been having an affair with. Overall, the men seemed to be stating the equivalent of "I knew I was having heart trouble when they popped me on the operating table."

These anecdotes are in fact indicative of heterosexual marriages as a whole. Women have always been the ones to initiate the dissolution of the relationship, with over 68.9 per cent of women filing for divorce, compared to men, who initiate just 25% of divorce proceedings. The rest, we may assume, is down to a mutual hatred.

I've written about this statistic before, and extrapolated that, generally speaking, men tend not to be as in touch with the relationship, or their own needs, as women are. Psychotherapist and relationships counsellor, Guy Vicars, former president of Australian Association of Relationship Counsellors, calls it avoidance.

 "I think the tendency for men is to avoid relationship issues. Once they have emptied their bag of relationship tricks, they can kind of grind to a halt," he says. "This is frustrating for their female partners who then feel like they are hitting their head on his brick wall."

Advertisement

Ahh the brick wall! Also known as the "shut-down"! A place from which no person can properly take in what is wrong because they're too busy trying not to fall down a shame staircase.

But what happens if you've been raised as a traditional male, and you're so disconnected from your feelings, you don't recognise your own shame and hurt? A counsellor I know once had to gently tell all the men in the room, "You may say you're fine, but if your pulse is racing and you're raising your voice, it means you're upset."

Dear Reader, the year was 2011.

According to Vicars, this "not listening" thing is made worse when women aren't able to properly communicate what is wrong.

"When men know clearly, they are usually more than happy to at least try and provide what is being sought. However some women find [the problem] hard to articulate and feel frustrated, let down and lonely," he says.

I think this is what's known in lay terms as the "nothing's wrong' defence. I know there are some evolved, mature communicators out there, but the rest of us know how this goes.

"Are you ok?"

"Yup" (Looks away. Tears prick eyes.)

"Are you sure?"

"Hhmm mm" (please note lack of articulation, due to aforementioned tears).

Cue: deeply uncomfortable silence until someone switches on the TV.

The thing is, we, as women, have been told for so long that our feelings aren't real, or that we're over-reacting, or nagging, that we become hesitant to say what's bothering us. This is also known as avoidance! Check mate!

"[Trivialising a woman's request] is a double-edged power play." Is how Professor Susan Krauss Whitbourne describes the dynamic

"It saves him actually having to do anything in response to her request until he's good and ready, if at all. By resisting her efforts to mold him to her will, the man can look as if he's in control when he agrees to the request."

So we stay silent, and quietly make plans to GTFO.

Yeah. Bad move.

"Of course it just gets worse, says Vicars. "Men hope it will go away, women get fed up with the lack of emotional connection and simply cut the knot."

"This is why men are surprised when they come home to an empty house and a post-it note stuck to the wall where the fridge used to be."

So, what's the answer? You know, apart from clear, face to face discourse where we only speak when we're holding the Talking Stick? Well there's therapy before the problem gets worse.

There are also groups such as Our Watch, who are teaching school kids in Victoria how to respectfully navigate relationships. But, by far, the people who will have the greatest impact on how we find our way through the inevitable conflict that arrives in every relationship are our parents, especially mothers. And here's where we encounter the circle of life; because if the feelings of the mother are trivialised or dismissed, then her child, left to his or her own devices, can only recreate what they've seen.