2. What to do about it?
In order for couples therapy to be effective the needs of both men and women need to be given equal time and attention. We have seen how there are multiple factors that impede that from happening. The language differences, the sex role bias, and the taboo towards men’s emotional pain all contribute to the avoidance of the depth of a man’s emotional experience. This sets up a situation where women’s stories, emotions, frustrations, desires etc are the focus in treatment. Given this bias the first thing that needs to happen is to help the man get his side of the story into the conversation. Otherwise the work is not about the couple but instead can become a cheerleading exercise for one spouse over the other. The man is clearly at a disadvantage. So what can be done?
One of the first things that needs to happen is to insure the man is voicing his side of the story and making what he wants and needs in the relationship an important part of the conversation. The man will be fighting not only the cultural bias against his own personal pain but also his own tendency to maintain his independence and to care for others rather than himself. These two factors conspire to make it less likely a man will present his own needs in relationship. The obvious question is what can be done about this?
Voice His Side
If you are a man in this position here’s a simple formula to help you come up with your side of things. Think back to when you were first dating. What did she do that you enjoyed? How did she treat you differently? What did you like about the ways she treated you and would you like to have some of those ways rekindled? Think about those things and bring them up in your couples therapy. Was the sex more frequent and more enjoyable? Did you feel admired? Appreciated? Was her complaining greatly reduced during those early times? Just say the things you miss and would like to see again. You might even want to jot down a list before you go in for the session so you will have them handy.
If you have a hard time directly saying the things you want you can always take a more indirect route. Remember in couples therapy the client should be the relationship rather than either you or your wife. Therefore it will always go over well if you talk about the things you want in terms of the way it will improve the relationship. Here’s an example, you want more sex and feel you have been cut off. You could say something about your needs and how they aren’t being met but you might also say something more indirect that will be more effective in the feminine environment of couples therapy. Here’s possibility: “I remember when our relationship was really good and one of the things that made it that way was a great sex life. I’m sure our relationship will improve if we try to rekindle that.” Basically you reframe “I want” with “The relationship needs.” You are saying the same thing it just has a much better chance within the confines of couples therapy to be heard and acted upon if it is framed in terms of improving the relationship. It will be very difficult for wife or therapist to shoot this down since it was presented as being helpful to the relationship. What may happen is the wife will now be forced to openly discuss her reasons for not having sex and if they are not very good reasons she will be seen as the one who is “blocking a good connection in your relationship.” Don’t be surprised if you hear from both the therapist and your wife that “sex is a result of closeness in the relationship and needs to come after you start feeling close again.” To that you can simply say that you have a different way of seeing this. You think that sex can actually rekindle intimacy and closeness and that is just what you both want, right? This at least puts it on the table that you want more sexual contact and think it will be helpful.
Remember, if both you and your wife are fairly happy with the relationship and the way things are going it becomes much more likely that you each will want to go out of your way to do things for the other. If someone is stuck in resentment they are much LESS likely to want to offer kindness. Kindness, like resentfulness is contagious. It’s just hard to get the kindling lit for kindness to start to burn, it’s too damp to light when soaked in resentment. In order for couples therapy to be of any use both members of the relationship need to feel they are getting what they want, or at least a part of what they want. Bring up the thing that YOU miss, bring up the ways you would like to be treated. When you get those things it becomes more likely that you will want to reciprocate.
When you say the things you want it never hurts to mention the emotional pain that the absence of those things has caused you. ie “It’s been really hard on me for our sex life to dwindle.” This is difficult for most men since we live under the heavy rule of needing to appear independent. When we ignore this rule it places us squarely into a needy and dependent stance. If you can speak of how things have been tough on you be sure to note the response of your wife and of the therapist. Do they ask you more about what this is like for you? Is your wife questioned about whether she has been supportive to you? Is there a similar amount of time spent on your unhappiness as that is spent on your wife?
Saying What You Want
When you tell your side of things the obvious result is you will begin to frame what it is you want in the relationship. This is critical. If you don’t voice what you want you are likely going to be inundated with only her side of things and what she wants. Think about the things you want and see if you can quantify them. For instance, if you want more sex can you quantify that? Well, I’d like us to have sex at least 3 times a week. Make it a number and put it out to your wife and the therapist. Maybe, I want you to cook dinner for the family at least twice a week like we used to do. If they concur that is a realistic goal then you have a good start. In the week ahead you can count the times the target goal is reached and you then have a gauge for success. All too often men in couples therapy walk away wondering what just happened. Did we get anywhere? Are we any closer? It seems nebulous and hard to gauge. Using the masculine strength of putting a number on things can be a good strategy in couples therapy for men.
Men Too Often Unheard – Are Their Issues Swept Under the Rug?
This is a very important question because my experience, as described in the first part of this article, with couples therapists in general is that they are much more interested in the upset and needs of the woman than they are with the man. His pain is all too often seen as an afterthought and hers as the main dish. I have sent clients into couples therapy with another therapist and have gotten feedback from my male clients that their pain is simply not attended to. Yet they are expected to spend much of the time on the emotional states of their wives. This may not happen so often, maybe it is infrequent. I certainly hope so but my experience tells me it happens more than a little. If you see this happening in a session it is your right to bring this up. Men are hesitant to do this since we are swimming in the provide and protect thing and this tells us to focus on her and shut up about ourselves. Keep in mind that in couples therapy both parties should get loving attention. Not just one.
One of the things you can do that will help getting positive outcomes in couples therapy is to work on listening. Many men are naturally pulled to want to help her out and fix things. The first thing we think of is to get her to see the simple solution that is so obvious to us but doesn’t seem so obvious to her. We tell her and what do we get? A sneer and a tear that they are not being heard! In the workshops I give I tell women straight up that they need to tell their men when they want a “consultation” as opposed to when they want “consolation.” Men will usually assume she wants a consultation which they can understand and try and help solve. Since men’s nature is to move in this direction it is incumbent upon the women to let the men know that they don’t want an answer or a solution, they simply want to be heard. They want consolation. When men truly understand this they are usually relieved! I don’t have to DO anything? Nope. Just listen. This is gold. A little bit of this can bring huge help and change. Here’s an example: Wife: “I am just so frustrated by Jimmy not sleeping at night.” Husband: “The thing with Jimmy not sleeping is really getting you upset.” She will then say “Yes, exactly.” And at that point you are both on the same page and in agreement. She feels that she has been heard and this is often very important to her. You didn’t have to do a thing to help Jimmy or her, you just acknowledge her situation. That’s it. For this small effort you will get kudos in the feminine world. The therapist will nod and your wife will likely feel good about things. All the while you have made no commitments, no offers to do anything, no nothing but you are getting good results. This is efficiency! Try it.
Voicing your side is an essential start. The next thing to work on is the language problem. They are more fluent so what do you do? You take your time. One of the things I have noticed over the years is that the man’s mental processor of emotions is much slower than the woman’s. If they ask you how you are feeling give yourself plenty of time. A couple of minutes or even more if you need it. Let them know you are considering your inner state and need more time then they might need. Don’t be rushed. The immediate response is to be rushed and to say something. Forget that. Take your time and get a sense of what is going on for you, then say it. Also, don’t feel you have to give a definitive answer. You can say you seem to be feeling this or that. You can also say you are not sure if that is the case. Don’t be rushed. Your processor is slower in working with emotions. You have a 286 and she has a quad core I7. The 286 is a good chip, it just takes more time. Slow is okay.
There are some things you can do while you are pondering the emotionally related questions that may help you come up with your truth. You have likely never been taught the basics of your own emotional states so let’s take a moment to go over some of the basics for men. Feel free to skip this if you don’t need the basics.
The first thing is to be aware of what is happening in your body. Oftentimes men can help themselves become more aware of their emotions by being aware of what is happening in their body. Think of the last football/soccer/basketball game you watched. What did the player’s bodies do as they were sad and were beaten? Slumped downward, looked heavy, gravity wins. What did their bodies look like when they played well? Everything points upward, jumping up, pointing up, high fives etc. Everything is pointing up. Gravity loses. Sadness will often have a simultaneous body experience that feels heavy or weighted down. Gladness and happy is the opposite, you are lifted up. What does your body feel when you are angry? Most men experience tightness in their arms, fists, or jaws. If your body is showing any of that it is a tipoff that maybe some of what you are experiencing is anger. Fear often has an accompanying sense of wanting to protect oneself, a sense of needing to put up one’s guard so to speak. that can be a tipoff for you. Is your body feeling heavy? Is it feeling trapped? Does it feel like surging upward? These are likely clues about what you are feeling. These point towards the building blocks of emotions. Almost all feeling related experiences can be boiled down to these four: sad, mad, glad, and afraid. When and if you get stuck in wondering what you might be feeling just run those four through your mind and ask yourself which one is closest to what you are experiencing? Is it more like sadness, gladness, anger or fear? Then again, maybe you aren’t feeling anything and that is ok too. Remember, it is okay to say something like, “I think I am feeling some sadness but I can’t put my finger on why.” You will get points for that sort of answer.
One of the things that men will sometimes forget to mention when they are saying what they want in the relationship is the lack of admiration. When relationships are first started the woman is often enamored with how the man cares for her. The man will usually get admired for this and it is the admiration that fuels him to do more for her. This cycle keeps up in healthy relationships. The woman maintains her admiration (and respect) for the man and he continues to help her feel cared for and cherished. It’s a positive feedback loop.
It’s an interesting fact that research has shown repeatedly that a good relationship will always follow the 5 to 1 ratio. Both man and woman will say five positive things to the other for every one negative comment. It seems that this ratio maintains the bond. When couples are fighting this ratio goes awry as the relationships fall apart. Bringing this ratio back can re-invigorate things.
What can be done about the volume problem? Learn to whisper. Speaking very softly has the advantage of not being vulnerable to being labelled as yelling and also has the advantage that when you speak softly people will often strain to listen to what you are saying. It’s an interesting gambit and takes a bit of self-control but the payoffs can be big since you can say things that might otherwise have been verboten.
Another variation on whispering is singing. Often times women will accuse you of having a mean tone of voice. This accusation has the bad habit of shifting the ground away from the issue at hand and throwing the focus on her and whether she is being hurt by your “insensitive” tone. I have found one of the best ways to completely negate this accusation is to sing to her what is pissing you off. When you sing you have absolutely no tone of voice. Not only that but it is so unusual and unexpected that it will often bring laughter from both of you while also getting the message across. This is a win. When I see couples and they are having tone issues I will often get them to sing and it is effective and hilarious. Everyone gets laughing, your side of things gets heard and the issues get on the table.
Couples therapy is feminine territory. The language used, the default importance of caring, the reliance upon talking, and the focus on feelings all play together to make this a place that is not particularly male friendly. By getting to know the territory and assessing your weaknesses and strategy you may be able to increase your chances of getting something from this process. Best of luck to you.
And don’t forget. Men are good.
Tom Golden, LCSW is a psychotherapist in private practice. His office is in Gaithersburg MD. Tom also does consults via the internet and phone. His newest ebook “The Way Men Heal” offers a quick look at the masculine side of healing. You can find him here: [email protected]