So on the plane back to North America, I chat to the woman next to me and we get to the fact that I am a psychologist and write about relationships. My ultra-sophisticated new friend purses her very red lips and with considerable conviction she tells me, “But men will not read your book! And men only come to see someone like you when a woman has already decided to leave.” She is adamant. Only women are interested in learning about relationships.
It is true that we socialize women to pay more attention to the nuances of their close relationships. There is even evidence that women have better memories for emotional events. It is true that women buy most of the relationship books.
Men often get to be the villain in the story of love relationships. As one client said to me, “There isn’t much room to move here. I am the villain or the hero. Seems like I have to be on top of my game all the time. If I am not perfect, well….” Research tells us that men do indeed tend to have more affairs and can even become obsessed with control to the point of being abusive. But our clinical practice and research over the last 30 years has also shown us that there are a multitude of men who will struggle and risk and reach for their relationships, if we give them the chance and show them how to do it.
When you do something called “emotionally focused” therapy (EFT), many folks assume that this is an especially hard sell for male partners. So why is this not so? In fact, in our research we found that this emotionally focused approach helps both partners untangle the drama of their emotional lives and send clear emotional signals to the other. In EFT, men who are called “inexpressive” by their wives do well and end up in a happier relationship. In fact, EFT works well with very macho men, like the New York Firefighters or Army Vets. This method works just fine with men who have to practice how to ‘suck it up” to do the jobs that regularly put them in harm’s way and require that they put their emotions aside.
I remember when I started working with trauma victims and their relationships, I was blown away by men’s empathy and protective caring once they really understood the dragons that their loved ones were facing. And, I am getting incredible feedback from men about Hold Me Tight. Men are writing to me and telling me that they don’t feel judged when they read the book and that it touches them. Tim told me, “This is the first time I feel like someone explained all this love stuff to me so that I really got it. I really did think my fights with Nancy were all about the chores and the list on the fridge. NOW, I get that those fights are about how distant we are and how lonely she feels. And now I can tell her that there are times when I get lonely too.”
What have I learned about men in my years as a couple therapist? That some have problems with commitment? That some need to be brought into line around relationship tactics like intimidation? Sure. And, that just like women, when they feel safe and are helped to understand how they create their relationship dance- they can learn.
When I am tuning into my male clients, it helps me to remember that most men have been systematically trained to ignore their softer feelings (but they still have em – no choice – they are wired in!), in fact to feel ashamed of them. They are trained to stay in their head and be problem solvers. And they often do this faithfully and consistently – even when their wives are starving for emotional contact and support! No-one ever told them that for their wife, they are the solution; that the best thing they have to give is themselves and their emotional support. All the research on support giving between lovers tells us that emotional support is what is needed and valued above all in close relationships. Your partner probably doesn’t need your advice or your directions half as much as your loving validation and your presence. Bob tells me, “All I did was stay close and hold her. It was hard. Part of me wanted to just leave or just tell her how to manage stuff better. But I told her I thought she could handle it and that I was there for her. I couldn’t believe it. She just melted!” I encourage Bob to think of how precious his Presence is to his wife. Only he can give that – lots of people can offer her advice!
We are also learning to recognize the pressures that men are under. We can call it by fancy names like, “gender role stress”. My clients talk about the need to ‘perform” in order to be really “male”. In fact, when in our model of therapy, or in the Hold Me Tight conversations, men do touch on their emotions, they nearly always talk about their deepest fears in terms of failure, feeling inadequate and shame at being ‘not good enough”. They then express hopelessness and describe a kind of ‘hunker down and hope this passes’ response. Unfortunately, their wives see indifference and a man that is shutting them out. It is almost like we have trained men to be extra sensitive to rejection and women to be extra sensitive to abandonment. But both speak of feeling lonely and deprived in a distressed relationship.
Even when the relationship improves and men see how much their wife needs emotional connection with them, they often talk about how they just “don’t know what to do”. It seems to me that they come by this confusion honestly. In North America, little boys are touched much less than little girls and “dependence” is much more accepted in girls. Men must ‘separate’ from mum or become a wimp, but often their fathers are distant and preoccupied. They have no model for emotional openness and caring. Our experience is that once men get a real understanding of love, they can step up and support their partners. In fact, it makes them happy and proud to be able to do this and to know how important they are to their loved ones.
I must admit, with all this talk of men and women that, in spite of our differences, what is obvious to me it that men and women are categorically NOT from different planets. We are much more alike than we are different. We both get panicked when we cannot get loved ones to connect with us; we both get stuck in negative ways of dealing with that panic; we both have a basic need for emotional contact and connection. We both are at our best when we are secure in a loving emotional bond.