There are missing voices in the debate about what makes for good relationships: men’s. Women share their needs but most men remain inscrutably tight-lipped. Fortunately, as a marital therapist, I’ve spent 30 years teasing out men’s feelings and helping them make sense of what they want. By sharing this knowledge, I hope to promote happy, smooth-running relationships. But, just as importantly, if you’ve hit a bad patch, these insights can help explain why your husband has turned into a stranger and stop you descending into crisis.
1. Men outsource their emotions to women
We men have been brought up to act on, rather than examine our feelings. It doesn’t mean that we’re not capable of understanding our emotions but, on the whole, we’ve outsourced their day-to-day management to our wife. She will remind us to phone our mum, interpret what’s going on beneath the surface with our stroppy teenage daughter and come up with a strategy for defusing the rows. And if we have a real problem, such as depression or anxiety attacks, she will flag it up and send us off to one of the army of women in the caring professions.
Dangers of ignoring this truth What happens if the person we have the problem with is our wife? For example, we’ve slipped down her priority list and feel taken for granted. In an ideal world, we would talk to her, but what if she feels attacked or dismisses our concerns? The typical man shuts down and hopes that if he pretends the problem doesn’t exist, it won’t. As this strategy is doomed to failure, he becomes prone to what seems to be – to his wife at least – irrational anger. What he can’t say, because his wife hasn’t sat down with him and helped him understand, is what he’s annoyed about in particular – for example, her habit of contradicting him in front of the children. But more importantly, he gets annoyed with his wife for not making everything better and therefore not keeping her end of the marriage deal to ‘tend his emotional life’. In the worst cases, he starts talking to a woman at work and awards her the contract instead!
How to use this knowledge If a man repeatedly shuts down and refuses to speak, don’t listen to his excuses about being too tired or work being stressful. This might be true – but only up to a point. He’s angry with you about something. So ask him why, give him permission to be honest (‘I’d rather know the truth’) and imagine that every word he says is true because from where he stands it is.
2. Men can’t handle female anger
If you have a son, you’ll know how uncomfortable he gets when you lose your temper (because it seems the opposite of love). Obviously daughters don’t like it either, but they have learnt more strategies for dealing with it from the constant falling out and making up with their friends at school. In contrast, if a boy falls out with his male friends in the playground, they fight and it’s over and done with. Worse still, if he falls out with his sister or a female classmate, it’s frowned upon to ‘shout at a girl’ and he has to swallow his upset. So when his mother gets angry, his only strategy for coping is to appease her (because she’s probably the most powerful person in his life). When he becomes a teenager and needs to challenge his mum’s dominance in his life, unless his dad sets a good role model for defusing female anger, he has no option beyond continuing to please.
Dangers of ignoring this truth If a man’s default setting is to agree with the main women in his life – because that brings the ‘quiet life’ – he will end up feeling powerless. So to get his own way, he says ‘yes’ and later comes up with an excuse (‘I’m going to have to work late so can’t collect your mother’) or seems to agree to your face (‘Of course I don’t look at porn’), then goes his own sweet way behind your back. Even though these tactics cause bigger rows in the middle-term, he has avoided your anger right now. In the worst cases, your relationship goes into a downward spiral, where his attempts to avoid your perfectly valid annoyance make you furious and he’s walking on eggshells to avoid another explosion.
How to use this knowledge Challenge any too-easy agreement. Are you sure? What will be the impact on you? What you are trying to encourage is swapping being passive for being assertive. By this I mean you can ask, he can say no and you can both negotiate. When you’re annoyed, don’t hold it in – because it will leak out with rolled eyes, sighs and sarcasm. Or it will burst out and be vented (which women think is good because all the feelings are out there, but men find scary). So tackle the problems as they come up and report your feelings, by using this formula: I feel…(for example, angry) when you…(cancel at the last minute) because…(I can’t plan ahead). If you report soon enough and make it about something specific – rather than a long list – he will hear you, feel able to put his point and you can discuss everything as two adults (rather than critical mother and sulky child).
3. Men believe in love more than women
When you have children you are unlikely to let love rule your life. Men, however, believe in love with a capital L. After all, if he’s going to hand over his emotional wellbeing to you, he really needs to believe in ‘the power of love’.
Dangers of ignoring this truth For men, love has to be everlasting to cope with handing a woman his heart (and his emotional life) and being terrified of being so vulnerable. So while you might think it doesn’t matter if dates, romance and flirting drop down your list of priorities after having children, it matters a huge amount to him. Often men who have affairs tell me, ‘It’s not fair that I’ve been labelled as the one who left because my wife left me years ago – for our children.’
How to use this knowledge Guard couple time jealously and don’t let your children’s everyday needs trump it. Make certain that you have fun together at least once a month and a dirty weekend away once a year.
4. Men in committed relationships think sex equals love
Women get their needs for intimacy met in a variety of ways – including from friends and from raising children. They also show their love for their partner by caring in practical ways – such as tending to his emotional needs. Meanwhile, men put their emotional eggs in one basket (their relationship with their partner) and express their love through sex.
Dangers of ignoring this truth If your husband makes a move on you and you respond, ‘You’re only interested in my body’, it’s deeply upsetting for him. When you turn down an offer of sex, to him, you’re also turning down his love. If you rarely or never initiate, he will think you don’t fancy him. Therefore, while you will think a sexual dry spell is natural, he thinks you don’t love him.
How to use this knowledge Learn to speak his love language and make physical touch a priority. Surprise him with a hug and, once in a while, show him you care by dressing up and seducing him.
5. Men do things for really obvious reasons
Men are simple creatures but, to quote one of our common complaints, ‘women overcomplicate everything’. So, for example, we leave our shoes in the hall rather than in the closet because we were distracted when we got home (and also we’re a bit lazy!), but you can overthink our motives into being disrespectful. You can also take something else from another part of our life – such as buying some expensive sports equipment for ourselves – bolt the bits together and build a cast-iron case to blacken our character.
Dangers of ignoring this truth Not only can you catastrophise (such as turning being a mildly lazy sports nut into ‘not caring about anybody but yourself’), but your overthinking can also go in the opposite direction and mean you ignore the obvious – for example, that your husband is being unfaithful. Now you’re minimising his strange behaviour (like putting a pin number on his phone), making excuses for his bad behaviour (coming home drunk at 2am) and telling yourself ‘he’s not that sort of guy’. When you’re forced to confront the truth about his infidelity, your overthinking can conclude he must have been in love with the other woman (when actually he just wanted sex).
How to use this knowledge Start by taking what he says at face value and, if it doesn’t make sense, ask rather than interpret. Good questions start with why, what, how and when. Nod to encourage more details or repeat the last thing he said – this shows you are listening and interested. Draw him out by asking, ‘Is there anything more?’ Don’t tell him what he’s thinking or feeling, as this puts men’s backs up. If it is something with a definite answer (for example, ‘Are you having an affair?’) it’s fine to press for a reply, but if it is more open-ended (‘Why did you have an affair?’), don’t get exasperated if he says, ‘I don’t know’. It’s possible he hasn’t come up with an answer himself. Give him permission to be confused: ‘It would help me if you could show me your internal workings, so I don’t guess and get it wrong.’ In effect, you’re helping him to listen to himself and take responsibility for his own feelings rather than outsourcing them and punishing you when you can’t mind-read.