Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Distant Men, Frustrated Women

Distant man

Women often view men as being insensitive and for good reason. But one way that men are sensitive is to criticism. Women are typically able to understand feedback designed to improve the relationship versus criticism of the woman herself.

Men have great difficulty distinguishing between personal criticism (you are falling short as a man) versus relationship feedback (you aren’t giving me enough attention). Both forms of feedback tend to trigger an inner voice that says, “You are falling short; you’re a loser in her eyes.”

When men experience shame they typically react by withdrawing or lashing out defensively. Each response serves to create a barrier to further shame. This protection comes at a price for the relationship as their partner feels rejection just as she was attempting to suggest a repair for the relationship.

Men who have received much shame as a child grow up with a protective barrier which easily goes up at the smallest sign of disapproval. Even normal withdrawal of attention or affection can lead the man to feel he is falling short and worthy of shame. Instead of asking for feedback and reassurance of the connection, he is more likely to withdraw or lash out in anger.

So how do you give feedback to a man who is hypersensitive to rejection? Many women allow resentment to build within rather than risk their partner’s defensive anger/withdrawal. A better approach is to offer feedback based on describing your own views, feelings and desires rather than talking about your partner’s behavior.

For instance, you can say, “I have felt disconnected for the past week; I would like to spend time with you so that we can reconnect” rather than “I feel ignored when you spend so much time at work.”

Now understand that either approach can trigger a defensive response but the first approach is challenging him to address your views and feelings not his behavior. If you are met with a defensive response, avoid becoming aggressive. Instead, show your vulnerability (i.e. being sad rather than mad)  but be firm in asking for him to appreciate your views, feelings and desires.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Searching for Blame or a Solution to Marital Problems


A sure way to create distance in a relationship is to participate in the blame game. This “game” requires you to hold your partner responsible for something dissatisfying in your relationship. Perhaps it is something he or she said, did or failed to do and often is packaged as criticism.

This negative feedback triggers your partner to become defensive. This leads to endless hours of arguing with the only outcome being that you and your partner feel more distant. How do you avoid playing the blame game while still asking your partner to address an issue of concern?

The blame game begins by you making a statement about your partner. We are wired to be sensitive to criticism. Men in particular see any negative statement made as criticism versus an effort to address the relationship. So how can you address your partner without triggering defensiveness?

Talk about yourself, not your partner. The best method is to challenge your partner to care about you rather than focus on defending themselves. Express your view, feelings and desires. Let your partner know how his or her behavior appears to you and how you feel. Here are some examples:

  • When you didn’t call, I felt hurt and uncared for.
  • I enjoy your helping me with the dishes and feel used when you walk away from the table without helping…or more simply, I need your help with the dishes after dinner.
  • When you are reluctant to have sex, I feel pushed away and hurt.

Notice that the message is about you, not your partner. This challenges your partner to care rather than defend his or her behavior. Try personalizing your complaints and requests for change, you may find that it results in fewer arguments!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Good Marriage or Bad?


In the book, Talent Is Overrated, Geoff Colvin suggests that we are not born with talent. Instead, he sights evidence that talent is born of practice. He points out that people who are good at something have practiced specific skills over many weeks, months, and years to achieve their exceptional level of ability.

Someone exceptionally good in sports, business or music is labeled gifted, their skill attributed to an inborn gift that the average person does not have. Colvin points to research that indicates that the best predictor of someone being talented in their field is the individual’s willingness to practice particularly when practicing is difficult.

How do you assess the basis for good marriages? Do you attribute a good marriage to a fortunate choice of partners or to a willingness to practice skills which contribute to intimacy? Most couples think of relationships as stagnant, meaning that they are what they are – either good or bad. Few think in terms of relationship building and the need to build relationship skills. In fact, a popular belief is that relationships should not be difficult and if they are difficult then there is something wrong with the relationship.

Marriage counselors understand that relationships require skills to connect, skills that are not taught in schools and often not demonstrated by parents. Most marriage counseling is sought years after the marriage has become dysfunctional. This is because marriage counselors are thought of as treatment for abnormal marriages that have failed where most have succeeded. It is difficult to admit that you have failed to have a normal marriage.

In fact, the percentage of couples who divorce added to the number that remain married but disconnected suggest that the norm is disconnection. Even though everyone getting married today expects to remain emotionally, physically and sexually connected for years to come, the reality is that most will disconnect. It is the exceptional couple who are able to maintain a connection!

Instead of thinking of marriage counseling as treatment for a troubled marriage, consider it as relationship coaching. A coach helps the athlete achieve maximum performance through practice. Similarly, a marriage counselor can help a relationship achieve maximum intimacy through learning and practicing relationship skills.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Power of Choice or How Television can Destroy Relationships


In the 1960’s the average family had just one television with basically three channels. The family spent less time watching television but would typically gather together to watch a favorite program.

Today you have many more channels and it is not unusual for families to have more than one television, even enough for each family member to choose his or her own show to watch at any time. Television is only one example of the many choices available to customize your environment to suit yourself.

The ability to customize your environment can be a threat to togetherness with your partner. You can separate yourself from your partner through each choosing a separate lifestyle.

Now think back to when you were dating. Recall how time spent together was valuable, even if it was simply watching television together. So what has changed? Now you place a higher priority on pleasing yourself at the expense of the relationship. You treat the relationship as a given in your life which does not need to be nurtured as it was when you were first bonding and letting your partner know you wanted a future together.

Yet the reality is that a relationship that isn’t nurtured will die a slow death. Eventually, you will wake up realizing that you and your partner are living parallel lives – together but apart.

Instead of thinking about creating a weekly or monthly date with your partner, begin to think about each day as a potential time for a date. Even if you have just 30 minutes to spend together, consider how you can spend that time together. Compromise your individual desires to nurture time together.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Emotional Infidelity

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What is emotional infidelity. What most likely comes to mind is the broken trust that forms when your partner shares emotional intimacy with someone of the opposite sex. It is perhaps fair to say that most affairs begin not by crossing sexual boundaries but by crossing emotional boundaries.

But another form of emotional infidelity is more common. This takes the form of not sharing your emotional self with your partner. Achieving intimacy with your partner requires sharing your views, feelings and desires. Closeness is compromised when you withhold this information in order to avoid tension.

“If I let you know how I really feel, then you’ll feel bad, so it’s better to not say anything.”

“If we can be rational, then we can avoid silly disagreements.”

“Differences are dangerous to our relationship, let’s ignore our differences so we can have a nice day.”

Each of these statements reflect the belief that confronting differences is likely to be harmful and that it is better to withhold one’s opinion than create tension. At times this is true (“Do I look fat in this dress?” for example:) but in general it is more harmful to withhold yourself from your partner. Here are some reasons:

  • Holding in resentments is like storing up firecrackers in your closet. When you set off enough of them, you have an exploding bomb!
  • Differences expressed can deepen your connection while simply blending on the surface creates a shallow relationship.
  • To feel deeply loved you must feel your partner knows the real you.
  • If you hide your views, feelings or desires you will not be able to negotiate for your share in the relationship, which will ultimately lead you to be dissatisfied.

Remember that sharing your views, feelings and desires does not mean being aggressive in expressing yourself. Also, you must be willing to take steps to understand your partner just as you wish to be understood. If each of you makes this effort the reward will be a deeper, more resilient bond.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Listen to Me


People often ask what I see as the biggest frustration for couples. They tend to think in terms of particular issues – is it money, sex or career issues?

The answer is that couples most often express frustration with not being heard, regardless of the issue being discussed. Women openly complain about this, while men feel equally misunderstood but are less likely to verbalize this except when they are angry. Women see their partner as falling short when communication breaks down, whereas men are susceptible to feeling they are falling short when their wife does not understand.

I find that women often react aggressively when their partner fails to be understanding, whereas men tend to withdraw, feeling helpless and lost in dealing with their partner.  Women have had the experience of being understood by their female friends and family, while men have much less experience trying to be understood. After all, young girls begin sharing their experiences with each other during their preteen years, while boys’ attention is on competing with each other (think sports) rather than relating to each other.

The most effective way for you to get your partner to be understanding is to offer understanding. Instead of pressing your point or raising your voice (volume is never the problem), try going into active listening mode. Ask yourself, “What is my partner’s view, feeling and/or desire?

A good challenge is to restate what your partner is saying in your own words before you try to make your point. A typical pattern that leads to arguments is to focus on your comeback before you let your partner know you understand his or her statement.

I often encourage couples to do the following exercise: 

One partner makes a statement which he/she feels to be true about the relationship. The other partner then is to make statements such as "Do you mean...?" to indicate whether he or she has understood. The objective is to receive three "yeses" before you reverse roles. Make this as fun and playful as possible. Avoid being aggressive.

Take turns practicing this active listening exercise then apply it when tension arises to increase understanding when it is most important.

Monday, February 13, 2012

What Women and Men Want From a Valentine Day Date


Why are romantic occasions as likely to create tension as an intimate evening? The answer lies in the differences in men’s and women’s path to connection. Both desire a connection, but their needs differ.

Men like to connect through touch and activity. Talking isn’t necessary. Think of how men befriend other men. They do something together and share information, avoiding feelings. Whereas women invite relationship through sharing views, feelings and desires…by talking about these.

When women suggest that men only want sex, they are only partly correct. Men enjoy a range of physical connection, but what bugs women is that a man can feel connected simply with touch and does not require verbal connection.

In contrast, a woman can be by the man’s side but still feel disconnected if there is no conversation. She needs an emotional connection and that can only be achieved through sharing her views, feelings and desires. If the man is to win her desire for physical intimacy, he must connect through emotional intimacy…he must listen to her.

Women are extremely sensitive to disconnection, whereas men are just as sensitive to women’s disapproval. Men want the woman to be delighted with him. When the woman feels disconnected she is likely to signal this through a complaint, which the man accepts as a message about his shortcomings rather than the woman’s effort to reconnect.

So, a good date does not have to be elaborate or expensive, but each partner must attempt to meet their mate’s expectations. Men must be good listeners, while women must realize that men can be quiet, yet still feel connected. Women can reach out for connection but this is better done through gentle touch with a vulnerable tone of voice rather than complaining.

Men must pay attention to the woman’s views and feelings. They must avoid interruptions or trying to change the woman’s views or feelings.  The woman must be able to reward this with an expression of delight in the man’s attention. If tension does arise, be prepared to examine the source from each partner’s perspective. Even tensions can lead to a deeper intimacy if managed properly.