I continue to hear a common statement from the men I see in my private practice. I feel it is a universal statement (feeling) many men share, or at least, understand.
“I am damned if I do and damned if I don’t”.
Disclaimer: Before I am criticized, judged, blamed, or labeled a man hater, I want to be clear that I do not hate men. Before I seemingly sound as if I am siding with men, there are no sides to take in the therapy world. I am merely taking what I have experienced and witnessed in my office in the last 30 plus years working with men individually as well as in relationships.
The expression “Damned if I do and damned if I don’t” is a common idiom used to describe a situation where someone (male or female) feels trapped or faces negative consequences regardless of the choice they make. While the exact origin of this phrase is not definitively known, it often comes out of the mouths of men…at least in my therapy world.
Yes, of course, this sentiment has been expressed by men and women when faced with difficult decisions or situations where the outcomes appear unfavorable no matter what action they take. With men, the outcomes they are referring to are most commonly regarding a significant other.
No matter how you look at it, “Damned if I do and damned if I don’t”, is a statement based on a feeling conveying a sense of being caught between two options, with no clear path to a positive outcome. This now is more than likely described by a partner as he being shut down, distant, disengaged, or emotionally unavailable.
When a man says, “damned if I do, and damned if I don’t,” it may suggest that he feels like he can’t win or meet his partner’s expectations, regardless of his actions or decisions. This feeling of being trapped in a no-win situation can lead to frustration, stress, and a sense of hopelessness. Men do not typically have a clue in how to perfectly communicate these feelings. This is a major factor in why men will tend to disengage and allow their partner to make most of the decisions in the relationship. Many of the times I will hear, “It’s not worth it” from men when I ask why they do not speak up or communicate.
Typically, when men perceive that they are in a lose-lose situation where their actions or decisions are met with negative consequences or criticism, they choose to shut down or get angry.
Men Under the Microscope…Understanding Criticism
The common reasons I have learned in why men might feel this way in a relationship:
- Miscommunication: If there are misunderstandings or miscommunications between partners, a man might feel trapped in a situation where he can’t seem to do the right thing because he doesn’t fully understand his partner’s expectations. This is the “I can’t read your mind” syndrome.
- Conflicting Expectations: When partners have conflicting desires or expectations, a man may feel that he is damned whether he prioritizes his own needs or his partner’s needs. This is the “You know what I want, why are you so selfish” from a partner syndrome.
- Lack of Appreciation: If a man perceives that his efforts in the relationship are not being appreciated or acknowledged, he may feel discouraged and stuck in a no-win situation. Verbal appreciation is extremely important to men! Yes, women don’t feel they need to thank their partner to taking out the trash (how many times do I take the trash out with no appreciation) but trust me, a thank you goes a long way.
- Fear of Upsetting the Balance: Men may avoid making changes or decisions because they fear it will disrupt the balance or routine in the relationship, even if they are not happy with the status quo. Shutdown mode begins and continues.
- Difficulty Expressing Emotions: Some men may struggle (Really?) to express their emotions effectively, leading to misunderstandings or frustration in the relationship. This is when I hear. “He is emotionally unavailable”.
- Past Relationship Trauma: Previous relationship experiences or traumas can influence a man’s approach to his current relationship, causing him to feel like he’s repeating past mistakes or patterns. It is easier to not to say a word, and God forbid he brings up the ex or refers to his past relationships.
- Lack of Autonomy: In some cases, men might feel like they are trapped in a relationship where they have limited autonomy or freedom to make decisions that align with their personal values or desires. Men may tend to withdraw from their guy relationships and secretly feel resentment that many times comes out in different negative behaviors. Many men will engage in gaming and you can find them on a device when he is home.
- Unresolved Conflicts: If there are ongoing conflicts or unresolved issues in the relationship, a man may feel that no matter what he does, these problems persist, creating a sense of hopelessness. This is when I witness the “he is shut down and I can’t get him to connect anymore”.
- Pressure to Meet Expectations: Societal or cultural pressures to meet certain relationship expectations, such as being a provider or protector, can make men feel like they are constantly under scrutiny. This is the “not good enough” seed buried way down deep in their soul that you will never see unless you are looking for it. Men tend to give up and shut down physically and emotionally.
- Complex Relationship Dynamics: Complex or unhealthy relationship dynamics, such as codependency or manipulation, can make it difficult for a man to make choices that serve his own well-being. This can present to everyone and his dog the “he’s such a good guy” or “he is the perfect husband” all the while this man has no idea who he is without his spouse.
Addressing these feelings often requires open and empathetic communication between partners, where both individuals have an opportunity to express their needs, concerns, and expectations. Couples therapy or counseling can also be beneficial for couples struggling with these dynamics, as a trained professional can help navigate and resolve conflicts and facilitate healthier communication patterns. Ultimately, the goal is to create a relationship where both partners feel heard, valued, and able to make choices that are in the best interest of the relationship and their own well-being. This is extremely difficult and does not ever take place easily, magically, or overnight. There are no miracles in couples counseling. It takes hard diligence from both parties as well as commitment to the work that needs to be done. This means there is homework, yes, homework assigned by a therapist or counselor.
Supporting Him Through the Paradox: How Partners Can Navigate ‘Damned If He Does, Damned If He Doesn’t’
Suggestions for individuals who find themselves in the “Damned if I do and damned if I don’t” relationship with a partner, I would suggest you first take an honest look at your critical side. If you are a woman, you have a critical side, we all do. Many times, men will gradually shut down when they feel they are overly criticized. I am not saying this is the only cause, I am saying it is extremely common among men to identify their reasons for shutting down.
Working on being less critical of a partner is an important aspect of maintaining a healthy and positive relationship. Criticism can strain a relationship and create emotional distance. Here are some steps women can take to work on being less critical of their partner:
- Take time to reflect on your own communication patterns and the reasons behind your criticism. Consider why you tend to be critical and how it may be affecting the relationship. This is generally inherited…yep, we learn this from our own parents and caregivers who have modeled this for us.
- Identify Triggers:
- Recognize the situations, behaviors, or actions that tend to trigger your critical responses. Understanding these triggers can help you become more aware of your reactions. We all have triggers, what flips your switch from zero to a million in a matter of seconds. Generally, they are triggers that reoccur over and over again.
- Practice Empathy:
- Put yourself in your partner’s shoes and try to understand their perspective, feelings, and motivations. Get out of your own shoes and try to walk in your partners shoes for a few steps at least.
- Improve Communication Skills:
- Work on improving your communication skills, including active listening and assertive communication. This normally takes a bit of studying and learning what this actually means.
- Focus on expressing your concerns and needs without resorting to criticism or blame. Again, YouTube it. Watch instructional videos and learn how to stop the routine or habits you have grown to incorporate into your everyday life.
- Choose Your Battles:
- Not every issue needs to be addressed immediately or with criticism. Be selective about the concerns you choose to discuss, and prioritize those that are most important to you. We are told to “pick your battles” with our kids, this pertains to spouses or partners too.
- Use “I” Statements:
- Express your feelings and needs using “I” statements to make your concerns less accusatory. For example, say “I feel hurt when…” instead of “You always…”
- Practice Positive Feedback:
- Make an effort to provide positive feedback and praise when your partner does something you appreciate. Yes, although you are not thanked for all that you do, you can actually thank your partner for the little bitty small things they might do around the house or to help you.
- Recognize and celebrate your partner’s efforts and achievements. You don’t need to throw a huge party (well, sometimes you might) but saying thank you (especially in front of the kids) can make a huge difference in the relationship.
- Take a Breath:
- If you feel the urge to criticize, take a moment to pause and collect your thoughts before responding. This can prevent impulsive criticism. Actually, bite your tongue off if needed. Criticism only assists the emotionally unavailable male partner to dig deeper and deeper into his dungeon lined with excuses and unavailability.
- Discuss Concerns Calmly:
- Choose a calm and appropriate time to discuss concerns or disagreements with your partner. I suggest you save the conflict discussions to once a week where you both share your concerns and feelings. This is unless there is a concern warranting a immediate discussion.
- Avoid escalating conflicts by engaging in yelling or heated arguments. When you have a habit of escalating by yelling, screaming, and scolding, you are only giving a man full ammunition to refer to you as “crazy” “psyco” or “hormonal”. The titles we all despise.
- Seek Perspective:
- Talk to trusted friends or a therapist about your critical tendencies to gain an outside perspective and potential insights. Yep, ask your closest friend to be honest with you and after she/he does, act as though you have duct tape on your mouth. Listen and soak it up.
- Set Realistic Expectations:
- Remember that no one is perfect, including your partner. Remember, you too are not perfect.
- Practice Gratitude:
- Cultivate an attitude of gratitude by regularly acknowledging and appreciating the positive aspects of your partner and your relationship. A gratitude jar where you force yourself to write one positive thing about your partner and one positive thing about your relationship a day will help substantially. Share these at the end of the week.
- Consider Professional Help:
- If you find it challenging to overcome your critical tendencies or if criticism is causing significant problems in your relationship, consider couples therapy or counseling. When ready, you can dig deep and actually see your own truth.
Remember that working on being less critical is an ongoing process, and it may take time and effort to change established communication patterns. With some people, it is like pulling teeth slowly, one at a time. It sometimes is a painful process of owning your own crap and recognizing you have a huge amount of power in the relationship to make positive changes by making your own changes first. Realizing you can’t change anyone but you can change how you act and react to the people in your life.
Dealing with a relationships can be difficult and overwhelming but you are not alone! If you are struggling right now, let’s talk. You can book an in-person or virtual visit.
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CRT, CCDC, CACC | Counselor & Life Coach
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