We all have difficulty dealing with conflict in a relationship. The ultra-sensitive man's reactions to an abusive relationship aren't different, but they can be more intense. Inside, the ultra-sensitive man is screaming, "Don't you know what you're doing is killing me? Just stop it! If you don't stop, I'm going to die!" What happens is that an ultra-sensitive man becomes over-stimulated, a state that Roger Easterbrooks, an ultra-sensitive man himself who offers healing help to others, calls "going into overwhelm." Overwhelm is when you feel your physical, mental and emotional systems can't tolerate any more. It almost feels like you're being pounded on. You want to run away. You then kick into "survival mode."
Why talk about an ultra-sensitive man's reactions to an abusive relationship? Because they offer everyone--you--clues to figure out if you're in an abusive relationship. Their reactions are simply magnified and intensified, and we can see them more clearly. If you recognize any of the patterns you see here, whether or not you're an ultra-sensitive man, it's time to look at whether your relationship is abusive and figure out what to do about it.
I know. As Roger talked to me, I could see myself having the same feelings and reactions, when I was in an abusive relationship. Was I in an abusive relationship? I didn't think of it that way at the time, but when she left my reaction was not grief, but an overwhelming sense of relief, as if a great burden had been lifted from me. Sure, I felt betrayed. Unloved. I missed the daily intimacy of a life shared together and felt terribly alone and abandoned. But I also felt more calm, relaxed, peaceful and centered than I had in a long time, and I experienced a new burst of positive energy.
How does an ultra-sensitive man know he's in an abusive relationship? His body tells him. Roger says you'll notice it in your body. Your body is tense a lot, especially through the shoulders, and your mind becomes foggy. You may experience stomach pains, aches and pains in your body, or headaches. Your temperature and pulse both rise. You experience anxiety or panic attacks. Your body is telling you, in these many ways, that something is wrong in your life, and you cannot for the life of you figure out what it is.
Look more closely--at your relationship. Do you dread "talks" with her? Does your pulse rise and your mind become foggy at the mere thought of a disagreement or conflict with her? Will you do anything to avoid the conflict and keep the peace? Do you have inexplicable aches and pains, or tenseness, and are these worse when you're around her? Do you have panic attacks at the mere thought of conflict, or mere thought of being with her? Do you find yourself looking for a lot more "alone time"? Does being alone seem a lot more calming and appealing than spending time with her?
Ultra-sensitive men have the blessing/curse of heightened awareness. You know you are upsetting her, or that she is contemptuous of you, without her saying or doing anything--and it hurts!
As Roger points out, ultra-sensitive men go into "survival mode" in an abusive relationship. Despite what we hear in gender-polarized views of domestic violence, conflict is a "dance of anger" between two people, each of whom plays a role. And ultra-sensitive men are vulnerable to being sucked into this dance, because their very survival is at stake. They'll feel like they'll do anything to stop the pain, including attack. He may shout back, and once the shouting match starts, there may even be physical violence.
There's an irony here. Research clearly shows that most abusive people (women and men) have themselves been abused. And many women are keenly aware of, and sensitive to, being abused. So if she's abusive, an ultra-sensitive man who shouts back is told he's being abusive--he's the abuser. He's feeling he's doing what it takes to ensure his survival--to make the pain stop. She feels he's abusing her. And he, with his heightened intuition and sensitivity, knows that she'll go tell her friends how abusive he is. What that mean,s of course, is that the ultra-sensitive man, keenly aware of her friends' emotional cues and reactions to him, will no longer feel comfortable being around her friends. Isolation sets in--the kind of isolation that permits more and more abuse.
How does an ultra-sensitive man respond to an abusive relationship? Roger points out that there are two groups of responses, both coming out of "survival mode." Fight, or flight. They're opposite sides of the coin, the coin called "stop the pain survival."
I saw this when I talked to Roger about battered men. I asked him how an ultra-sensitive man who is not the one doing the abuse but the one receiving the abuse reacts. He role-played it for me. Your body temperature rises. Your pulse quickens. Your speech becomes more rapid and more confused. You pace. Or you retreat into absolute, deadly-calm stillness. You want to scream out, "Stop it! Don't you see you're killing me! Just stop it!" You experience "overwhelm" -- you feel you physical, mental and emotional systems can't tolerate any more. It almost feels like you're being pounded on. You want to run away.
As Roger says, you strike out, or you repress it. But Roger points out that icy silence is also a form of aggression. You become aggressive, or passive-aggressive.
Roger sees three forms of the same theme, repression:
The problem is compounded when the woman has, herself, been abused. If you react strongly, she will see you as an abuser. You suddenly realize you're going to be what she says you are, you're going to start living her projection of you. That's more incentive to "stuff it" or to hide. You already feel upset anyway and you don't know why you're upset. It's a nasty little game, and you feel you are the game ball.
- "Stuff it,"
- Disconnect, and
Stuff it. Much as you'd like to scream out, you just sit there and take it. You convince yourself that it will be over soon, that you will weather the storm, just like you did the last ones. You don't want to rock the boat.
You don't shout out or even talk back, because you don't trust your own emotions. You want to protect her, and you're afraid of what will happen if you stop holding back on your anger. You're afraid you won't be able to control it.
Disconnect. You're still in the room, but you're not. You're off somewhere else. It's almost the same as "stuffing it," but you don't feel anything. You're "detatched," just like a Buddhist.
In fact, Roget talks about kicking into the "Zen warrior mode." Or, more properly, the "wounded Zen warrior mode." You think you are being of service to your partner. You're helping her by supporting her in "letting it all out" without reacting. "O'm taking it because I love you so much." ("And maybe if I take it, you'll love me back." Too bad it doesn't happen that way.) We can take care of her emotional needs and emotional burst now, and deal with my emotional needs later. But "later" never seems to come. You know that if you "let it all out" like she's doing, she'll call you abusive.
Leave. The work deadline is crushing. It's important to be with friends, to support them. There's an important workshop that will really help your self-growth and improve the relationship. There are always very good reasons, but for one reason or another you're just not spending as much time with her. Truth is, if you look at it, you just "happen" to be around her less, because you feel so calm and relaxed when you're not with her, and so tense and anxious when you are. You don't have to walk on pins and needles when you're by yourself, or with other people. The problem is compounded when the woman has, herself, been abused. If you react strongly, she will see you as an abuser. You suddenly realize you're going to be what she says you are, you're going to start living her projection of you. That's more incentive to "stuff it" or to hide. You already feel upset anyway and you don't know why you're upset. It's a nasty little game, and you feel you are the game ball.
So what do you do about it, if you're an ultra-sensitive person in an abusive relationship? Roger offers no pat solutions to this one. One thing you do is what men who aren't ultra-sensitive do in abusive relationships. Talk to other people. Do a "reality" check with friends and acquaintances, to reassure yourself you aren't the crazy one. Get help and advice. Watch out for your physical safety, and have a "safety plan. Check out the advice and resources here on MenWeb. The important thing is to do something, rather than just pretend there's no problem or hope it will go away. If you're an ultra-sensitive person, you also have to deal with that. Roger's Web site offers help for highly-sensitive and ultra-sensitive people.