Over the past 30 years of working as a psychologist with men doing individual and group therapy, I have often seen men struggling to maintain either the romance or friendship or both in their intimate relationships. It’s a subject I’ve been investigating and exploring for much of my professional and personal life. I’ve often noticed my men clients complaining about their relationships in a way that is troubling. Why is my wife so controlling? I feel like I never do things right by her, and she always finds something to criticize; is there such a thing as the-glass-is-always-half-empty syndrome? It feels like she doesn’t appreciate me. She controls what restaurants we go to and where we go on vacation. Why doesn’t she value my input on how to raise our kids? I don’t know why I have to send the kids to private school; it puts so much pressure on us financially. I didn’t want to travel for one of my two-week’s vacation with my wife’s parents. I don’t know how to make her happy.
When these same men come into therapy as a couple, 85 percent of the time, they will turn to their partner and ask, “What did you want to talk about?” Even though there is usually something bugging or troubling them, they’re reluctant to talk about it. They choose not to mention a recent conflict or an objectionable quality about their partner, and instead, they take to the sidelines, either denying it or avoiding it, faultily thinking it will go away. They have such fear of confrontation, anything but that!
Despite the progress being made dispelling myths and eliminating stereotypical gender roles, much of society still perpetuates the idea that women are in charge of the child-rearing and dealing with any relationship problems that come up at home and in the therapy office. We see this dynamic played out in movies, sitcoms, TV commercials, and even t-shirts reading “My only boss is my wife.” Many married, heterosexual men feed into this idea by joking about their “old ball and chain” or being kept “on a leash,” or “happy wife, happy life.” This is not only a distorted and unfair characterization of men and women but a kind or rigid relationship role-playing whose paradigm was supposed to have gone out of style back in the 60’s.
Good relationships these days are more about equality. They involve give and take, strength and vulnerability, independence and closeness. However, both men and women sacrifice a lot when they give up too much of themselves for “the sake of the relationship.” When either partner forgoes their individuality, the relationship itself loses steam. This lack of vitality in a marriage is what inspires many couples to seek therapy.
While a lot of men complain about deferring to the women in their lives, they don’t always recognize the ways they’re drawn to, seeking out, or contributing to this dynamic. Some men find it more comfortable to feel directed or taken care of by their partner. They ask, “Where do you want to go on vacation? Eat? See a movie? etc.” They don’t realize it, but they’re actually actively giving up a part of themselves that is vital, independent, and attractive to their partner.
Writer, poet Robert Bly, offered insight into this phenomenon. He observed from his work with men that many boys growing up are more sensitive and able to care about their partner’s feelings and health. They are better at sharing in domestic responsibilities such as childcare and household chores. They may be more emotionally attentive to others, and yet, they’re not always in tune with their own life energy, the life-giving, wild side of themselves (not to be confused with the savage side of man). He explores this very cleverly in his book Iron John. They may lose touch with their unique initiative, ideas, and passion, and ironically, these are often the traits that drew their partner to them in the first place.
David Finch, captures this best in his book titled How to be a better husband: One Man’s Journal of Best Practices. A few years after publishing the book, Finch told the following story, while speaking at a conference. He described how he was just about to take off for a speaking gig and while saying goodbye to his wife, she told him that the marriage was over. Finch was stunned (and thinking at the time, wasn’t I the guy who had a bestseller on being a great husband?), but he couldn’t address the shock and discouragement he felt at the time. Although he was freaked out, he had to leave on his work trip .Here he was, a guy who really thought he had figured out how to make his wife happy, who believed he was in the “happy wife, happy life” phase of his life, and now he had to face that his marriage was over. While he was away, he felt pretty bad and obsessed about what had gone wrong in his marriage.
Finch returned home feeling really deflated. As soon as it was possible, he spoke with his wife. She explained that what she really meant was that their marriage, as it had been, was over, and that she wanted a different kind of marriage. He was greatly relieved to realize that it was their relationship dynamic that, in his wife’s view, had to change, and the marriage was still alive, even if it was on “life support.” He found out that his wife wanted their relationship to be very different than it had been. She told him that she found him far too focused on fulfilling her desires and needs and, in the course of doing that, had forgotten aspects of his own identity. She found their marriage had become routine and predictable. It seemed that the more Finch focused on pleasing her, the more she lost touch with her attraction and interest in him. Where was he, the person? She missed the collaboration, energy, and unpredictability, agreeing and disagreeing, but having two points of view, not having her point of view always trump his. She wanted what mattered to each of them individually, the things they were really passionate about, to go on mattering, and she believed that the dynamic recipe was made up of sharing life and being strong and feeling individuals. This was the vitality or wildness that was missing for her, the adventure of two people finding their way down and through the stream of life.
Because Finch is such a revealing and entertaining speaker, he was able to present his marital struggles in a humorous light. But what he captures in his personal story is the importance of being alive and true to yourself as well as to another. The goal for any two people in a relationship, regardless of gender, is to be equal and adult. To be life-generating, involves knowing yourself, your passions, your wants, your feelings, including what you like and dislike. It doesn’t mean being selfish, rigid, or controlling, but it does mean, sometimes saying no and standing your ground. It’s possible to be vulnerable and available without giving up important parts of who you are, and this is the ultimate struggle for any two people who choose to intimately share their lives.
For many people, this disconnect from themselves comes from lessons learned in early childhood. For example, a good number of men I’ve worked with grew up without a father with whom they could identify. Their mother may have been more accessible or felt more emotionally safe. These boys developed a stronger identification and connection with their mothers than with their fathers. In some cases, their mother taught them how to respond and take care of her or the family’s needs. Some of these men described this relationship as giving them more confidence; even feeling they had an advantage over other men, in terms of being able to be more sensitive and attuned to a future girlfriend.
Of course, any mother-son or parent-child relationship will influence a person’s budding sense of identity and future relationships. One study found that a healthy relationship between a mother and son directly affects his sense of morality and ability to have healthy romantic relationships as an adult. However, if that relationship is more strained or the mother has a more critical view of her son or men in general, the son often internalizes these attitudes toward himself. In addition, if he had a father who seemed weak-willed, emotionally vacant/distant, or too critical and punishing, or if he had no father figure at all, he may struggle with his own identity and the concept or expectations surrounding masculinity.
While I’m not personally advocating or even identifying certain characteristics as “masculine” or “feminine,” most people are being raised or have been raised in homes with limiting, even hurtful attitudes or expectations surrounding their gender. The distorted views of masculinity that some of the men I’ve worked with were exposed to as young boys left them feeling suspicious of the masculine. Some described adopting their mother’s fear or distrust of men or taking on the guilt of their father’s absence. Many described feeling either guilty or ashamed of their maleness, or on the flip side, thinking they had to constantly prove themselves and become workaholic providers. As a result, they grew up struggling with their personal identity as a man.
As adults, most of these men possess important traits of sensitivity and attunement to others, but they lack gumption when it comes to expressing themselves. They’re hesitant or unwilling to be bold or take initiative. They may date people who are more controlling or seek direction from their partner or spouse, even when she or he isn’t trying to take the reins. These men often struggle with connecting to their own convictions or their anger, and they find it especially challenging to express their point of view directly.
The work in therapy, for these men ,has been for them to find their way in their relationships. They have to identify ways they may put themselves down or keep themselves “in their place.” They should explore any negative or distorted associations they have around the concept of “masculinity.” They need to determine for themselves what it means to be who they really are — to feel strong and self-possessed, sensitive and attuned — both toward themselves and toward those close to them.
For me, it was a combination of men’s groups, therapy, male mentors, and my male friendships that helped me come to feel more comfortable and confident as a man. It is from this place that one can experience all that that embodies: being able to access one’s natural wildness, openness to adventure, the capacity for serious focus, the ability to recognize and express the full range of feelings, sensitivity to others, knowing and expressing one’s wants, and saying “no” when one feels like it.