Deborah J Fox, MSW
Jessica wonders why she and Steve don’t seem to have much to say to each other these days. Bickering has become a frequent pastime. It seems he’s only interested in being with her when he has sex in mind. Jessica ponders, “Hmm . . “when might be a good time to broach a conversation?”
“Babe, can we talk?” are among the most dreaded words in any language to the vast majority of men. He hears only, “I’m in trouble.” And so begins an unfortunate cycle that is repeated over and over again in homes, restaurants, and parks around the globe.
Men know they feel “in trouble” when these words are spoken. What many men don’t always know about themselves is “why.” You’re mystified. The secret is that men’s happiness in relationship depends largely on whether their partners are happy—and specifically happy with them.
Men want to feel emotionally connected just as much as you do. Too often these attempts to connect backfire. This is so maddening and puzzling to both of you. He cleans off your car in every snow, shares the chores, approaches you for sex, works hard to be a good provider and makes sure all the insurance premiums are paid. You tell him you want to spend more time with him, want to improve the communication between the two of you, want him to suggest some fun things to do together. He disappears into his man cave of stony silence.
“What the heck goes so wrong?” you both ask. What is so wrong is that he feels he’s tried so hard to show his love and affection—and you’re not satisfied! AND he’s in the doghouse again. What puzzles you is that you tell him what you want and he’s not inspired.
When you tell him what you want, he hears how he’s fallen short. He feels he’s failed in his job as a partner and retreats in shame, usually disguised as anger or withdrawal. You feel misunderstood and deserted.
Drs. Love and Stosny assert that there are strong gender differences afoot, set in motion by biology at birth and solidified by socialization. We’re taught how to avoid shame and fear according to our gender. (https://www.amazon.com/Improve-Marriage-Without-Talking-About/dp/0767923189)
What I so often hear from women is “How do I cope with this man I love? How can I connect with him?” The answer isn’t complicated. But it does require looking through a different lens.
When you say, “We need better communication,” you usually mean, ”I want you to understand me.” And he wants this just as much. One major way a man communicates is to do things for his partner in the hopes of making her happy. When these efforts aren’t noticed and put in the “I feel loved” column, he feels he hasn’t been “heard”, much less understood.
One thing that really helps is to learn to “hear” the language of men. You might think, “Changing the lightbulbs is great, but that’s not what makes me feel loved.” However, recognizing that this is his effort to love and care for you can be a game changer. When he feels acknowledged and appreciated for these practical efforts, he is more likely to stay present with you and his man cave feels less beckoning.
If you disrupt the cycle of misunderstanding and missed cues, then the channels of communication have a much better chance of being open. He is then likely to be able to hear and understand you.
Being a disruptor
Do you want to facilitate a dramatic shift towards a far more enjoyable relationship?
Tough as is it, changing this cycle requires you to temporarily set aside your frustrations and build a bridge between the two of you. Knowing your neurobiological differences makes a world of difference.
Dr. Stan Tatkin states that partners who become experts on each other can learn what pleases and soothes their partners. Herein lies a critical key to a satisfying relationship. If you understand the differences in your neurobiology, those familiar arguments and impasses can fade and dissolve. (https://www.amazon.com/Wired-Love-Understanding-Attachment-Relationship/dp/1608820580/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1498229959&sr=8-1&keywords=stan+tatkin+wired+for+love)
Challenging as these “Do’s and Don’ts” might be, keep your sights on the big prize of a closer relationship:
DO: Accept and appreciate out loud all the things he does for you and your family.
DON’T: Criticize him. Most issues that are tense between the two of you can be discussed without criticism.
See his eyes light up when you tell him you appreciate that he gets up and goes to work every day (regardless that you’re doing the same). What’s important to him is that you know that the reason he does much of what he does is to make you happy.
If you are yearning for more attention:
DO: Be affectionate
DON’T: Complain that he’s not affectionate.
You might complain that the only time he’s affectionate is when he wants sex. Men often look to connect emotionally through inviting their partner into a sexual encounter. If you’re not in the mood, build a bridge between where you are and being open to touching. This could be a hot bath, a conversation, a foot massage, a walk together. If you have to pass, propose an alternative that is physically connecting and make good on a rain check for sex.
If you would love more time and attention from him:
DO: Be that person anyone would want to be with. Listen to what he has to say, show interest, propose a fun activity, be complimentary.
DON’T: Bring up loaded issues when you’re having a fun or relaxing time together.
If you refer to things on his “to do” list that haven’t been done, a pet peeve, or your best advice on how he could lose weight, he’ll feel pounced on. That man-cave will seem very appealing.
If you want to be understood:
DO: Ask if this is a good time for him to listen to something important you have to tell him. Be a safe person for him to be in conversation with. Be vulnerable. Let him know that you realize he may not have intended to offend you.
DON’T: Ambush him. Don’t try to talk with him when you’re angry. Don’t lay out your self-improvement program for him. He’ll only hear, “Here’s how you’ve failed.”
If you unload on him when you’re angry, his ears will close. Wait until you’ve identified your more vulnerable feelings that triggered the anger first. He can more likely hear that you’re hurt, feel ignored or unimportant.
These suggestions most likely won’t feel easy to do. Yet, they work. Remember this is a win-win scenario. When couples feel connected, there are fewer problems. With understanding and respect for your differences, it’s possible to change this common cycle of his feeling he’s failed and your feeling misunderstood and abandoned. When men feel they’re successful partners and women feel understood, there are few problems you can’t tackle—together.