01/25/2013 11:38 am ET Updated Mar 27, 2013

Why Men Retreat and Women Go Wild

Dr. Pierre Mornell knew he'd hit a raw nerve when both men and women began fervently nodding during his lecture on "modern man's main secret." That was in 1987, yet a behavioral scientist I interviewed recently said it felt like yesterday when he sat in that agitated audience.
The most recurring, resentment-raising behavior between the sexes, according to Mornell, is that "in our own homes, most of us 'men' -- we would-be emperors -- have no clothes. We seek down time, thus seem passive and that drives our women crazy."

1. He/She Does Not Act Right... Like Me

Mornell realized that many of the couples he saw in counseling shared a similar style of fighting. At work, the man is active, articulate, proposing and usually successful in his conversations, especially with other men. But at home he becomes more inactive, inarticulate, and withdrawn. His apparent passivity drives her crazy. He retreats. She goes wild. Even in the wake of the changes cited in Hannah Rosen's book, The End of Men and the Rise of Women, this phenomenon seems to persist. Renowned marriage counselor Dr. John Gottman estimates that "about 85 per cent of stonewallers are men," holding feelings tightly inside.[1] Women often assume a man doesn't care when in fact he may be "overwhelmed by the emotions that the conflict arouses in him," according to Jed Diamond, author of The Irritable Male Syndrome.

He thinks: "If only she'd shut up." She thinks: "If only he'd listen and talk with me."

2. How Trouble Can Then Escalate Between the Sexes

In both work and personal relationships, women tend to say more, in greater detail and speak longer. (I'm guilty of that.) A man, on the other hand, will speak and move less, especially when feeling confronted, to the point of becoming almost motionless -- as if that will make him less visible.

He sees an impending fight, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. He then seeks to what he feels will be an unproductive emotional scene. In retreat, he inadvertently sparks her further interest in getting the situation resolved right now. In fact he may see a spiraling conflict where she sees a fruitful discussion.

Sound familiar? In Joseph Heller's novel Something Happened, the husband says, "I try my best to remember on what terms [my wife] and I parted this morning, or went to sleep last night, in order to know if she is still angry with me for something I did or didn't say or do that I am no longer even aware of. Is she mad or is she glad? I can't remember. And I am unable to tell. So I remain on guard."

The relationship becomes an endless ferris wheel of cycling futility that they both step onto and seem unable to step off, because they both keep it moving.

3. New (Rude) Rules of Engagement Emerge

Tenderness between them disappears. Tenderness and mutual affection are the lubricants in all love relationships. Early in a relationship, men and women are innocent until proven guilty. After repetitive "passive men and wild, wild women" episodes of friction, each person is guilty until proven innocent. That is what we grow to expect of each other. We then behave to prove ourselves right -- and, sadly, succeed at that. Eventually, disgust settles in, and as both Paul Ekman and John Gottman have found, when that happens the relationship will not survive.
Whatever he does is now never enough. Right or wrong, he is always wrong. And so is she. Unfortunately, this pattern may continue to be their script. Except one day when one of them may "suddenly" walk away from the relationship.

4. Two Ways to Support Each Others' Contentment

1. First, for a woman: Recognize the powerful role you can play in creating harmony and goodwill when you shine a spotlight on the achievements of the men in your life, your work colleagues to her son, father or husband. Hint: Fewer words, more touch.

2. Second, for men: Realize that offering genuine attention and praise, for the heroines in your life, especially for the achievements for which they most want recognition, not just for their supportive roles to you, can also lead to a more harmonious and loving relationship for you.
Hint: More words and more warmth upfront means you will need to do less later in the situation, yet now may want to.

"The opposite of love is not hate. It is apathy." -- Rollo May, Love and Will

5. Act to Support a Balance of Power

In the Sufi religion, there's a saying, "God makes only co-equal partnerships." When both a man and a woman believe they have more or less equal power in the relationship, they are not likely to take each other for granted. They speak about the parts in each other they most cherish, evoking the "Michelangelo Effect," sculpting each other in mutually-beneficial ways.

6. The Less Said, and the More Done, the Better for Both of You

Prove your positive intent first in deeds, then in words. That is, by the way, the least likely route for educated "rational" adults to take so they get stuck in thinking, rather than feeling about their relationships. I must say I know that firsthand, through my own inadequacies.
The ultimate answer begins with our refusing to accept our man as passive or our woman as wild. See, instead, that our differences can be the roots for our shared adventures.


[1] Diamond, Jed. The Irritable Male Syndrome: Understanding and Managing the 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression. New York: Rodale Books, 2005.

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