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Suzanne, Therapist, LCSW
Category: Relationship
Satisfied Customers: 919
Experience:  Experienced in treating trauma, relationship issues, co-dependency
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Resolved Question:

My friend has been having an issue with her husband for years now. When he was in previous relationships, his significant other hurt him badly. She put down his pride in many different ways; by cheating on him, he cried to her and begged her to come back to him and she didn't display any emotion towards him, he flew from one state to another to see her and she stood him up. He used to try so hard to fix the relationship, he loved with his whole heart and soul and his ex never responded to his tears, to his expressive words, nothing. He used to be so emotional but now hes not. Its hard for him to cry and to respond to his wife's emotions. As much as he wants to he feels like he cant. He says no one can understand what he went through, to feel like you have to commit suicide to be heard. How can she help him fix this?
Submitted: 5 years ago.
Category: Relationship
Expert:  Suzanne replied 5 years ago.

Thank you for bringing your question to Just Answer!

If your friend's husband got to the point where he felt like he had to commit suicide to be heard, it would make sense that he cannot tolerate strong emotions anymore.

Has he tried therapy yet?

Customer: replied 5 years ago.
He doesn't believe in suicide but to express how much he felt like he wasn't being heard... he used that expression.
Sometimes he can tolerate strong emotions but most of the time he can't but wants to.
Customer: replied 5 years ago.
Never tried therapy , financially unable to do so.
Expert:  Suzanne replied 5 years ago.

Thanks for filling in the details. It seems like strong emotions are a trigger for him to that earlier, unhappy time in his life. When his wife shows emotions, it may bring him immediately back in his mind to his ex. He has a degree of trauma, and when similar things trigger the trauma response, he may be getting flooded with fear and sadness, even if the present situation is nowhere near as bad as with his ex. His brain will automatically react as if he is back in the past. Because that time was so incredibly painful for him, in order to not feel all of it again, his only choice is to shut down.

This is not a reaction that he can control. His wife may need to vent her emotions with friends and try to interact with him when she can be more in control of her emotions. This is a tall order, but he really can't help his reaction--it's not something he chooses, but is an automatic reaction due to trauma.

The other way to help a person who is being triggered is to help him stay grounded in the present. She may find that expressing her emotions while they walk together (the walking will help keep him in the present, because he has to stay aware of his body) or while they work side by side on an activity or chore will get her more empathy from him. People who have had trauma can "check out" mentally when triggered--moving the body is the easiest way to keep them in the present.

The fact that he would like to express and tolerate more emotion shows his reactions aren't due to a lack of caring. If your friend can learn to accept that his shutting down is like an old injury, and not take it personally, taking some of the pressure off him to respond emotionally may improve their relationship. It's a tall order, but if she can realize that he's there for her on a day to day basis, and just shuts down due to this 'old injury' maybe she can realize that he's showing her his love the best he can.

Of course, if his financial situation improves, it would be wonderful for him to have some therapy to heal those old wounds and enable him to be more fully emotionally present with his current wife.

Customer: replied 5 years ago.
The problem with the suggestion made is that she grew up in a household where her family valued her feelings and its hard for her not to expect that her husband may not be responsive to her feelings. For example; she may cry about something that happened to her and he may respond with little words and little emotion. Shes not used to that and doesnt know how to get used to it. It only hurts her more and is causing her to start shutting down and pulling away from expressing her feelings to him.
Yes you are right ... he is a caring person. Very caring, the type that will stop on the side of the road to ask a lady walking in the cold if she would like a ride.
Since he acknowledges his problem, and wants to change it.. how can she help him get there? Because it seems like what his ex made him feel... he's making her feel (not in the way she did of course) and she's begining to be a little colder.. last night.. she told me that when she cries... she stops crying randomly and doesnt know why. She feels like she's losing the ability to cry.
Expert:  Suzanne replied 5 years ago.

She can help him by being very specific about what she wants from him. She could try saying to him " I feel really sad because ......, and it would help me if you would hold me in your arms." That would make him feel like he's helping, and help her to feel like he cares. We women like to think that men should just know what we need without having to ask for it...but they just don't deal with emotions the same way we do. Seeing their wife cry can make a man feel ashamed, because he feels its his job to make her happy. When a man feels ashamed, he will either run away or shut down. To us, it seems so obvious...just let us cry it out and be there for us...but it really is different for men. It makes them feel helpless, and men hate that, because they are "fixers." (like offering that woman a ride).

It may help your friend to read this book. It has the best explanation I have ever read about how and why men and women act and react differently in relationships: How
To Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It.
It will help her to see that many men are not all that comfortable with strong emotions, and hopefully help her realize that this isn't something that he's doing on are just wired differently--they want to go straight to "how can I fix this?"

I wish there was an easy fix for this problem. Help her understand that it's better to ask specifically for what she wants and to get it, than to wish that he could just automatically know, and end up not getting what she needs.

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