What Your Husbands Tell Me about You
By Nancy Small, Ph.D.
As a psychologist, I am privy to people's innermost thoughts and feelings, and even the man in your life –contrary to the conventional male stereotype---confides in me. Some of the talk might center on work-related issues and the competitive drive for power, but the major thrust for therapy is more likely than not to be his relationship with you. Yes, as the woman in his life, you should know that the silent caveman sitting across from you at the dinner table is actually the same being who sits in my office talking at length about his relationship with you. You might be surprised to learn that he does give a lot more thought than you would ever suspect to what he likes and doesn't like about you. Now don't get scared---even if he comes in confused, guilty, or angry, he really does want your relationship to survive and flourish. Basically, he loves you very much---even if things at home seem to suggest otherwise---but many times he doesn't feel that he can easily confide in you or meet your high expectations. Often, it is a case of insecurity---in the arena of relationships, he sees you as the superior being with the power to overwhelm him with feelings.
What are some of the reasons that men seek treatment, you might wonder? Over the course of many years of doing individual and marital therapy with men, the impetus for professional help covers the gamut---from guilt and torment over an extramarital affair to depression or feelings of failure. Very often, the men might confess that they don't feel that their needs are being met at home (sound familiar, women?) or are conflicted about whether or not to stay in the marriage. Sometimes, it is a case of loyalty ties---caught between his wife and his parents over who has the major claim to him, he feels perpetually caught in a tug of war, not being able to fully please either side. Or, other times, he feels that he is shut out of family life by your domination over the household and the children's lives. Sometimes, he just yearns for the courtship days when you thought every joke he made was funny or when his romantic and sexual advances were welcomed. He might even want a romantic get-away for just the two of you---minus the children or the in-laws --a time when he might have your undivided attention again.
You're probably thinking: "What about me---I'd love some undivided attention, free of conflicting demands ! When is the last time that he made time for me or told me that I looked lovely? Or why is it always up to me to make baby-sitting arrangements or finalize any the plans if we do anything special?" Unfortunately, true as that might be, this kind of thinking precludes either of you from moving in closer to one another or making any shifts in the relationship. Sometimes one change, even on your part, might motivate him to try that much harder next time to please you and meet more of your needs! Neither of you can afford to sit around waiting for the other person to change!
One major complaint that I hear from men is that you wives are too controlling, that things have to be your way. Even when your husbands try to be helpful, they feel thwarted. For example, one man who was eager (sincerely so!) to share household responsibilities with his wife, volunteered to do the laundry---with very specific instructions from her. However, his wife consistently found fault with the way in which he carried out this task (no, he did not mix coloreds with whites!) and in a not uncommon tactic, she reverted to the much despised (by men) martyr syndrome---"never mind, I'll do it myself!" Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of behavioral psychology surely knows that this is a sure-fire way of extinguishing such kinds of efforts.
Another area of control relates to decision making---whether it's the family's life style, where they live, with whom they spend holidays, or vacation plans. Men, in an effort to avoid conflict (and let's not exclude plain laziness or habits formed growing up in households where overly responsible moms tended to make all the arrangements), often let their wives make decisions---from the most minor (what they should wear) to the most major (how the family's money is spent). In other cases, men might defer to their wives because of their own insecurity about making choices, seeing their wives as experts in decorating, child rearing, and household duties. Finally, there are those husbands who are dependent, passive or fearful about antagonizing their wives, and instead of engaging in negotiation, tend to turn to their wives for "permission" to do just about anything. Perhaps, this represents a vestige from their pasts where only mothers were around to grant them permission for activities, to give them "goodies" for being compliant or it might even be a displacement of their need for a mothers' love onto their wives. At any rate, despite a husband's apparent cooperation in deferring to his wife, even the most gentle, easy-going, or passive man will eventually get in touch with the seething anger he feels in the face of the resulting powerlessness of his situation. And, rather than confront the offensive pattern directly, he might finally explode over the most trivial incident, have an extramarital affair, and engage in passive aggressive maneuvers (e.g., forgetting his wife's birthday, withdrawing affection, sabotaging his wife with respect to the children).
Did you know that many of your husbands are jealous of the time you spend talking to your mother or the overly close ties you might have with other family members and friends? Or that they might feel wistful when they see you look adoringly at your son or pampering your daughter? Jealousy comes in many forms and the competition does not always involve another arduous male, but rather anyone a wife seems to be more interested in than her husband. Men want continued reassurance of your unconditional love for them, and not only in the bedroom (although that does go a long way with men, whose sex drive is genetically engineered differently than ours). They also want you to make some time for them, rather than your talking with a friend for one hour on the phone or running off shopping rather than taking a walk with them. They also want you to show an interest in their work and activities (I know you certainly want the same from them), the topics of conversations not always having to relate to domestic concerns or the children. Believe it or not, men are more likely go outside of the marriage for the attention and companionship that they crave than the initial high of a new sexual experience.
It is essential that you not exclude the men with respect to their children. I hear men sometimes complain that as soon as children come along, they are pushed out of the picture, relegated to mere providers or distant, unknowing figures. I know you women say you want your men to get more involved in child-rearing, but the fact is that sometimes you leave no opening for your husbands---the relationship with your children being so overly close and tight.
Men are often clueless about how to help you women when you are in emotional distress. Very often when they respond in the only way they have been programmed to---problem solving---their attempts at support are seen as lecturing or control maneuvers (or perhaps a haughtiness that they feel superior to you). Rather than rebuffing them for their efforts, let them know that their support is appreciated and redirect them to merely listen in an empathic way or to put their arms around you. (We all know this kind of support is much more welcome and makes us feel validated, understood, safe, and free to come up with
our own solutions).
Finally, men are upset with your nagging, criticism, and anger. When you're upset over something, stay focused on the specific issue rather than dredging up all the emotional baggage from the past. Don't treat them like children, but rather talk to them as the adults that they really are (Please, no comments from you women out there who might feel otherwise!). Remember that they too are sensitive creatures, even under the "Macho Man" facade, and they can feel hurt and bruised just like us. And, women, let's love, validate, and appreciate our guys out there---they want the same care that we ourselves want (even if they don't know how to ask for it).