A man once told me that his wife said she doesn’t feel connected to him. The first time she said it, he looked around, quickly noticed they were both physically in the same room talking to each other, and so exclaimed, “What the f**k are you talking about? I’m right here!”
She didn’t feel connected to him. When he couldn’t make sense of that and angrily said so, she felt even more disconnected. Over time, their relationship crisis would worsen.
Have you experienced this?
Since my recent blog, “You Have To Choose Her Everyday (Or Leave Her),” a lot of women have written me with this complaint about their male partners: “He doesn’t know how to show up.”
These women typically describe how angry, hurt and frustrated they are that their partners seem to be emotionally and/or psychologically absent from the relationship. Many are about to give up and leave. Some already have. There are also those who stay, and stay miserable.
What are these women pointing to in their pain of disconnection?
It’s called Masculine Checkout Syndrome, or MCS (a real condition I made up).
In most heterosexual relationships* it tends to look like this:
Man is physically present but emotionally and/or psychologically distant. He might say he cares about the relationship and his partner, though he engages more consistently and perhaps more enthusiastically with other aspects of life – work, TV, hobbies, friends, sports, addictions – than he does with her. When he does engage with her, he often does so with indifferent or agitated energy. She feels it; he doesn’t … or he pretends not to.
One woman who wrote described her male partner as a good man who usually does the right thing in their relationship. She’s deeply dissatisfied by his lack of emotional display. He’s physically present, but all she feels is the actual solidity of his body. Sex is dissatisfying because he doesn’t use his body to dance in delicious sensual partnership with hers; he’s mostly just masturbating himself inside her.
She feels abandoned, even though he physically shows up.
Here’s the essential problem:
He’s been taught his entire life – as most men have – to deny his emotions, to deny the body in favor of mental fortitude. As a boy, he was told, “Don’t act like a girl!” … “Don’t be a wussy!” … “No pain no gain!” … “Stop crying!”
He was shamed when he let down his veil of invincibility, usually by other men and sometimes by women, too. For women were also taught that vulnerability is akin to weakness, that emotions are inconvenient and burdensome, and that it’s best not to express yourself too much lest you annoy others.
So when emotions begin to overwhelm – as they often do in the inherently emotional world of intimate relationship, whether erupting from a partner or ourselves – we cut the body cord and retreat into the intellect for safety. Or we eventually express those emotions as anger because that’s the emotion of strength, so we’ve been led to believe. Though even anger isn’t hardly acceptable today.
When we can’t solve the emotional burdens of the relationship (“Why is she feeling disconnected and upset when I’m right here?”) and anger fails us, we’ll turn to solving easier problems at work or in sports, or just watch others do it on TV. Whatever we do, we start separating ourselves from the relationship for mental relief.
Thus, Masculine Checkout Syndrome.
We stop showing up, even if we stay in the room.
What to do?
To start: Breathe.
To stay embodied in the presence of an intimate partner who’s expressing upset, a simple technique I offer men in my coaching practice – and women, too, for women also embody masculine energy and are susceptible to MCS – is to visualize breathing into your heart.
Breathe consciously, deeply, intentionally, into your own heart. As you exhale, breathe into her heart.
She doesn’t even have to know you’re doing it.
Feel her. Feel into what’s really beneath her upset. The woman before you may be masquerading as an exploding nuclear bomb, but she’s not an actual bomb. She’s simply a woman in pain. She misses you. She misses you in your heart.
This is what’s required of us: To return home to the heart.
We all started out there as little boys, able to cry as easily as we could laugh. Unafraid to cuddle our mothers and embrace our fathers, we offered our emotional feedback to the world without shame.
Somewhere along the way we began to bottle it all up, distrusting, even fearing emotions.
I’m not suggesting we return to childish ways of unleashing emotional havoc on the world around us.
I am suggesting that the time has come to temper the rational intelligence of the intellect with the mysterious wisdom of the emotional body.
The intellect, though it can serve us well, can also make people do all kinds of things that hurt themselves or others when just one intense thought takes over.
Emotions can offer profound guidance when the intellect fails to comprehend the complexities of any situation. A deeply nourishing emotion can illuminate what’s working well in this moment, while a painful one may indicate that something clearly isn’t, no matter what the calculating intellect says.
Through their upset, our intimate partners are pointing the way home. They’re inviting the masculine in us all to return triumphantly to our full bodied authentic selves, integrating intellectual intelligence with embodied emotional wisdom.
Your partner’s angst is an invitation back into your heart.
Breath into your heart. Then breath into hers.
It’s a start, and it won’t solve everything.
But when she smiles because she feels you like she hasn’t felt you in a long time, you’ll know it’s a good start.
Bryan Reeves is the author of the book Tell the Truth, Let the Peace Fall Where it May.