I work hard in my practice and in my writing to avoid gender stereotypes. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s helpful to avoid them this time. While this advice is as true for women as it is for men and vice versa, I’m seeing a pattern in my practice that often falls within stereotypically gendered roles—and that matters. I’m not alone in this observation that men are struggling to listen to their wives. In fact, research done by the Gottman Institute supports my experience, showing that men tend to be less likely to accept influence (listen, absorb and take action) from their wives than women are to accept influence from their husbands (Gay and Lesbian couples do much better at accepting influence from their partners). This same research indicates that accepting influence from your partner is predictive of a strong and lasting marriage.
But my goal is not to share the research with you—you can look that up on your own. My goal is to warn you. Men: DO NOT to wait to listen to your wife, because one day she’ll stop talking and start leaving and by then it may be too late. And Women: DO NOT wait too long to identify and speak to your needs or you’ll get resentful and fall out of love with your husband and by then it may be too late.
Two Things That Happen in My Office So Regularly That it’s Cause For Concern...
I get a panicked call from a man who is very eager to set up couple’s counseling. He says something like: “My wife is saying it’s over and I don’t know what to do.” When they come in for a session, the wife (or female partner) is guarded, cold, resentful and completely unmotivated to work on the marriage. “I’ve been telling you that I need you to __________ for years and now I don’t even think I love you anymore.” And the husband (or male partner) says something like “But I provide for our family and I don’t yell at you and I never cheated. How could you wonder if I love and appreciate you? I'm here aren't I? I know I’m not perfect, but man, you’re really going to divorce me over not telling you I love you enough?!”
A female client I’ve been seeing individually talks at length about why she doesn't think she can express her needs (I shouldn't have this need, he's so good in other ways, it'll just make him more distant, he won't hear me anyway, he'll leave me). We finally arrive at a willingness to face the fear and speak the truth. Now she's coming in week after week telling me about her attempts to talk to her husband (or male partner) about her needs for connection and collaboration and self-care and he either listens and then doesn’t make any change or he tells her she’s overreacting in one way or another. She asks for ways to begin the conversation and tries new communication techniques. She invites him to a session and he says he hates counselors. She tries and tries and tries and then, one day, comes in and says she’s ready for a separation. She says she doesn’t even know if she loves him anymore.
Here’s What I Think Is Happening:
There was a time in our history when marriage was a legal arrangement that allowed for procreation and child rearing. It was not expected to be more than that and often was less. These marriages were often very unhappy and rampant with physical abuse, emotional abuse, rape, adultery, depression, anxiety etc. This was not the golden age of marriage by any means, but divorce wasn’t really a thing so statistics can fool us into believing that it was, in fact, a golden age. As time went on two things happened. First and most obviously, women joined the workforce and realized that they could (quite successfully) support themselves and their family without a man. Second (probably as a result of the first), men realized that they could raise children pretty darned well without a woman involved. So we no longer NEEDED marriage to procreate, raise children and succeed in life, but we still WANTED marriage. Now marriage was expected to offer more. It was expected to be about love and friendship and partnership.
And yet, men and women were still being socialized in very similar ways. Men were socialized not to express emotions or vulnerability and women were socialized not to express their needs lest they overwhelm everyone and scare the men away. Both of these things: expression of needs and emotional vulnerability, are necessary for lasting, rewarding friendships and partnerships. Without knowing it, we wound up playing the same old tune and expecting a totally different song just because we actually liked and chose this person.
The same old tune goes something like this (while these gendered roles are not ALWAYS the case, I find that they are very often the case): A man pursues a woman, a woman presses for permanence, a man hesitantly agrees and proposes, a woman tries to be the ideal wife without any needs, a man tries to be the ideal husband by providing, a woman cautiously begins to express her needs, a man jokes with his buddies that women are “so emotional all the time” and winds up spending more time away from home to avoid the “demands”, a woman feels unheard and unseen and talks to her friends about how “men just don’t get how hard it is”, a man gets distant as a response to his wife’s requests for emotional connection, a woman gets distant and stops wanting to have sex, a man complains that there isn’t any sex in their marriage and coerces his wife into sex, a woman begins to think she can get these emotional needs met better on her own or in another relationship, a man begins to think he can get his sexual needs met better on his own or in another relationship and BAM—we either have an affair or a separation.
We Americans have a strong mythology around marriage. If we pick the person we love and they love us than we will never fall out of love and live happily ever after. We know it’ll be hard but we aren’t sure what hard looks like so we assume the “hard work” is when we fight or when we give up on something important to us for the other person (which we kindly refer to as compromise). But that’s not it at all. That’s the wrong kind of hard work for a marriage. But we assume it’s what all those older married people meant when they said “marriage is hard work”. So we resign ourselves to this kind of marriage hard work and don’t think twice about doing something about it until things are broken beyond repair.
The hard work in a marriage is being able to express our needs, hear our partner’s needs and brainstorm on how to get them met as best as possible. It's turning towards each other when everything in us wants to turn away. Sounds nice, huh? It can be when we do it. But here’s the rub. We have a million emotional barriers to expressing our needs and a million emotional barriers to hearing that our partner’s needs aren’t being met. So we get defensive, we stonewall, we become contemptuous and we criticize. And since we anticipate those responses from our partner (typically because those are the responses we saw in our youth), we avoid being honest and true with each other.
So What Do We Do?
Start Listening. If your partner is bringing up the same thing over and over again please know that at some point they’ll get tired of not being heard. If it matters to them enough to say, it matters. If you struggle with active listening get help. If you've heard it before, committed to change and have struggled to make the change, consider that there is a deeper issue at play and please consider counseling.
Start Talking. If you have an unmet need- speak it. One of my favorite phrases is “speak your truth without blame or judgment”. Use your trusty “I” statements and speak to the need (I need to feel as if we are partnering on making decisions around parenting) not the desired outcome (I need you to do more with the kids).
Get Counseling Early. I truly enjoy helping clients build their relationship from the ground up. Getting couples counseling when you’re both highly invested in the relationship is the best time to do it. Don’t expect a therapist to bring a corpse back to life. Couple’s counseling isn’t a Hail Mary.
Find Out How To Be Vulnerable. Brenee Brown has many good books, Podcasts and training courses on this topic. Counseling is another great way to figure this out.
Find Out How To Identify and Communicate Your Needs. Brenee Brown is another great resource for this information. Counseling is a better resource if this is a struggle for you.
Learn To Express Your Emotions. Dan Siegel has great resources on how the brain actually manages all of these emotions (Mind is his most recent) and the book Focusing by Eugene T. Gendlin is also a good resource. Counseling is better because we get to explore what is so scary and hard about expressing our emotions.
Read The Research: Gottman’s research is the most comprehensive couple’s research out there. These folks have identified the things that couples do that predict divorce with almost perfect accuracy. If you don’t believe me, believe the research—and if your partner doesn’t believe you maybe they will believe the research.