June 2, 2024
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My Husband Walks Out During Our Conversations

Dear Dr. Chani,

As a newlywed, I am struggling with a strange behavior I have noticed with my husband. Whenever I try to discuss something important with him, he leaves the room. I know it sounds crazy, but he literally just walks away right in the middle of what I am saying! If I start talking with him in the living room, he will move to the kitchen, and when I follow him to the kitchen, he moves to the bedroom. I have asked him why he does this, but he says he does not know. He claims he is not doing it on purpose.

I never had this experience with him when we were dating. He used to sit across from me at restaurants and pay attention to me. One of the reasons I married him is because I thought that he was such a good listener. It is really confusing to me that now that we are married he cannot focus on what I am saying.

When I try to understand why he seems to run away when I am talking, I realize that it tends to happen when I bring up something that is bothering me. It can be something small like that he leaves his socks on the floor in the living room, or something big like an issue with his parents. I have tried to bring topics up in a non threatening way, but it does not seem to make any difference. What can I do to get him to listen to me and stay put when I speak to him?

Sincerely,

Atara

Dear Atara,

It sounds like you are very disappointed and frustrated when your husband walks away from you when you are speaking to him. You might be hurt and insulted, too. It seems like his behavior is coming out of nowhere since he did not act like this before you married him. What makes it even more confusing is that your husband is not aware of why he does it. It even seems a bit out of character for him.

From your description, it sounds like your husband becomes overwhelmed when you bring up certain topics that are critical of him or his behavior. He feels pulled to leave the situation. Even though he would like to listen to you, part of him wants to exit. So his behavior follows suit.

Your husband is experiencing a phenomenon called emotional flooding. Something in your conversation triggers him to feel overcome with emotion to the point that it is hard for him to hear you. Flooding does not only affect a person’s ability to think, listen and communicate. It can create physical sensations in the body. These include a person’s heart rate going up, increase in blood pressure, dryness in the mouth or pain in one’s head. These are not unrelated anxious reactions, they are a direct result of feeling overwhelmed by the subject being discussed. They cause a person not to be able to absorb what the other is saying, or a feeling that he needs to leave the conversation. Even if he stays, the conversation is usually not productive. When flooding is triggered, it can seem like the person you are talking to is ignoring you or being rude. In reality, he is almost helpless and at the mercy of his overwhelmed system.

It seems like your husband is nonconfrontational and does not want to be in a conflict with you. When you bring up a topic that seems like it is related to conflict, he instinctively leaves the conversation. He has a physiological “fight or flight” response to what you are saying, and he chooses “flight.” Even if you were to ask him to stay, you are going to be head to head with his physiological reaction. Dr. John Gottman, a noted couples researcher, has found that men generally tend to flood more quickly than women and their flooding lasts longer. When this happens, men instinctively stay silent or walk away to protect themselves.

What can you do to help you and your husband have a productive conversation? Firstly, accommodate for his flooding. Most people get flooded during some conversations. Instead of dismissing it by following him from room to room to continue talking, understand it. Your husband might need to step away for a bit before you continue the conversation. Let the words that you said so far in your discussion sink in. Allow him to be away for some time and process the first part of your conversation and let the flooding gradually dissipate. Most people experience flooding acutely and then it slowly decreases. Let that happen for your husband. Do not follow him when he walks around. Instead, let his reaction subside and then continue your conversation at a later point.

In addition, you can discuss the concept of flooding with your husband. Explain to him what it means. Ask him if this natural reaction could be part of why he walks around during some conversations with you. You can also ask him if he feels any physical sensations during some conversations. Even if he does not notice specific sensations, discuss how walking out can be part of a pattern he engages in when he senses conflict and wants to avoid it. It can be helpful for you to both be on the same page in understanding his reaction. This can reduce your frustration and hurt when he avoids conversations with you. He also might be able to reduce his need to leave once he becomes aware of his behavior and understands why it happens.

Another approach that might reduce your husband’s tendency to walk out on your conversations is to modify the way you bring up issues. When something bothers you, describe how you feel and what is bothering you instead of criticizing him. Use “I” statements instead of “You” statements that imply blame and put him on the defensive. Focus on what you would like to be different instead of about what he did. For example, talk about how you feel when he does something and what you would like changed. This phraseology, called a “soft startup” by Gottman, is not just a change of words. It allows you to express what you would like without directly criticizing your husband. This can allow him not to feel flooded and to be more attentive to what you are saying.

Try to understand where your husband’s reactions are coming from and how to navigate them. Combine that with softening your conversation startup. You will find that your conversations with your husband can be both longer lasting and more productive.

Wishing you much success,

Chani


Chani Maybruch is a social psychologist and relationship coach, specializing in teaching emotional-connection and communication skills for over two decades. She coaches individuals and couples, teaches courses on how to become a master of relationships and provides free relationship resources at chanimaybruch.com. Learn a step-by-step method to improve your ability to emotionally connect with her new online course: The RELATE Technique™—Seven Steps to Emotionally Connect Through Conversation. Reach out to her at [email protected].

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