Read an Excerpt
If he doesn't understand why you're reading this book (or "get" all theways in which you try to strengthen your relationship)
Who cares? Okay, maybe you do care. Let's be honest; most of us wish our partner would acknowledge and appreciate our considerable efforts to improve the quality of our relationship. Wouldn't it be nice, for example, if your partner noticed that you're reading this book and did any or all of the following:
- ask why
- leaf through it
- leaf through it and comment on specific issues that apply to him
- borrow it to read when you're finished
- or, best of all, suggest that you read it together and talk about everything in it that relates to the two of you.
It's a lovely fantasy. But it probably won't materialize. Granted, it would be terrific if your partner was intrigued by and engaged in your ongoing efforts to improve your communication, deepen your intimacy, and handle thorny issues that arise. Unfortunately that's asking a lot. It's not because men are illiterate or insensitive. And it's not because they don't care, although at times it may feel that way. Contrary to what we may think, our partner's response to our overt attempts at enhancing intimacy isn't a reflection of his commitment or his love.
So why do we continue to feel disappointed when our partner doesn't place the same value as we do on improving our relationship? In part because we tend to place symbolic value on our partner's behavior when, in reality, his response has little or nothing to do with us.
Imagine, for example, that you're interested in signing up for a weekend relationship seminar offered by your church or synagogue. You're willing to set aside the time and invest the money; you've even thought of inviting your closest friends, Bill and Sandy, to join you. You bring up the idea over dinner, excited at the prospect of spending a weekend "working" on your relationship, although you're prepared for him to need a little coaxing. You explain the details and wait expectantly for his response. He fidgets with his food, mumbles something about golf, walks into the living room, and turns on the TV. You follow him, insisting that he give you one good reason why you shouldn't attend the seminar. "Can we talk about it later?" he asks. No. It's Wednesday and you need an answer. You get an answer. Looking more than mildly irritated, he says, "Our relationship is fine. Why would I want to spend my weekend sitting in a room with a bunch of strangers whining about problems we don't even have when I could be out on the golf course with my friends?" (Thank God you never mentioned Bill and Sandy or he'd really freak out!) You stomp out of the room, furious that your partner cares more about hitting a little ball into a hole than saving your marriage, which must be in even worse shape than you thought.
Or let's say you try to read a portion of this book out loud to your partner. A certain passage strikes you as being extremely relevant to issues in your relationship. You start reading and your mate interrupts midsentence to ask when the carpet cleaners are coming. You slam the book shut and tell him to "Forget it. Obviously you couldn't care less about what's in this book."
Bingo! You're right. He may not care about hearing the content of this book or talking about other relationship-related issues. But that doesn't mean that he doesn't care about you. (Remember: The rule is to reverse a double negative; in other words, he does care about you even if he doesn't share your interest in self-help books, couples counseling, relationship seminars, or other means of improving intimacy.)
There is, however, a difference between being disinterested and being dismissive or downright rude. The point is that you're reading this book -- or making other efforts to improve your relationship -- because doing so feels right and worthwhile to you. That's all you need to be concerned with, unless your mate ridicules or makes disparaging remarks about what you're doing, in which case, stand up for yourself and don't let his attitude undermine your enthusiasm.
Do what you do for yourself. Using the metaphor of this book, your mate doesn't have to read it, like it, or like the fact that you're reading it. Actually, the most likely scenarios are: Either he'll skim through it, laugh, and say something relatively benign and somewhat endearing such as, "Fifteen, huh? So what's my score?" (Why do they have to make sports metaphors out of everything?) Or he'll snort sarcastically and say something like, "I see you're wasting more good money on another one of those stupid chick books," which actually means, "Oh, oh. I wonder if I'm in worse trouble than I thought." In other words, he may be threatened, which leads us to the following question.
WHY ARE THEY LIKE THIS?
Just to reassure you that you're not alone, relatively few men read self-help books, and even fewer initiate "feelings conversations," couples counseling, or relationship seminars. (Yes, thousands of men attend John Gray's Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus workshops. Although it doesn't take a rocket scientist to predict this statistic, I'd bet my mortgage that at least twice as many women as men are the ones who sign up for the seminar -- and that's probably being conservative.)
Why is this? First and foremost, men in general are loath to accept advice, unless it's from their stockbroker, car mechanic, or boss, and only then because they don't have a choice. Whereas most women are open to input, men avoid advice like the plague, which, in fact, is a fairly good analogy, in that to men taking advice implies acknowledging that they need help (that they're incompetent, confused, or ailing), which is a matter of swallowing pride, something men choke on, even when they'd benefit from the input.
Along the same lines, reading a self-help book or attending a relationship seminar is tantamount to admitting that they have a "problem," which most men would just as soon ignore or avoid. (If we don't talk about it, maybe it will just go away.)
Now, of course, we know that exploring relationship issues is a sign of health, a positive step toward strengthening ourselves and our partnership. But men don't know that. Instead they assume that self-help books, counseling, and other therapeutic endeavors are for "people with problems" rather than individuals who are healthy enough to pursue a deeper, more enduring connection.
That's just how men are. (Again, there are exceptions to every rule.) Stop and think: How many times have you brought up a difficult issue to your partner only to be accused of "causing" the problem by having mentioned it in the first place? I'm working on a name for this one. It's a version of "shoot the messenger": First we struggle to figure out the best way to bring up the issue (without provoking an argument or putting our partner on the defensive); then we summon the guts to initiate a conversation about "difficult stuff"; and then we end up being reproached for delivering the information. No wonder we're stumped. If we don't bring the issue up, nothing changes. If we do, we run the risk of a conflict. That doesn't leave us with any good option. (Not to fear: see Simple Solutions about this in chapter 12). For now, suffice it to say that seeking relationship help falls into a category we might call: "I'd rather eat nails than sit around thinking about or talking to strangers about my personal problems, much less paying good money to do so."
My second husband, Joey, fell into this category. Early in our relationship the subject of marital therapy came up. Joey jokingly said, "If our relationship ever gets so bad that you want us to go to therapy, I'll just pin a note on you saying, 'Fix her and send her back when she can live with me and love me the way I am.'" At the time I found his comment witty and adorable. Three years later, when the blush was gone from our romance, I discovered he'd meant this quite literally. Sure enough, I had to drag him to our one and only therapy session; eventually we divorced, in part because of his refusal to deal with our issues in this particular way, and partly because of my stubborn insistence that this was the only way to do so.
Finally, it's important to know that your partner's lack of overt interest in sharing this book or other efforts at building intimacy doesn't necessarily indicate that he's oblivious to your feelings or to the issues in your relationship. He'd simply rather not read about or talk about these issues, and seeing, for example, you reading this book (and probably discussing it with your friends) may make him feel vulnerable and exposed.
The more threatened your partner feels, the more likely he is to act out by being disrespectful toward you. If, for example, he reacts by ridiculing you (saying you're a "self-help junkie" -- so what; you could have worse addictions), by confronting you (saying, "I suppose you're going to read that book and then go off about all the things that are wrong with me"), or, worst of all, shaming you (saying, "If you were as smart as you think you are you wouldn't keep going to so-called experts for advice") it may be because he's terrified of what you might discover about yourself and your relationship. Remember: Knowledge is power. Your partner's insecurities will surface if he feels threatened that you may be thinking seriously about what needs changing in your relationship, or it may evoke his worst fear although he'd never admit it, that you'll end up realizing he's not Mr. Right and you deserve better.
There are ways to reassure your partner, which we'll get to in a moment, but for now it's essential to know that you needn't explain yourself, defend yourself, or even reveal that you're reading this book or pursuing other ways to improve your relationship.
But first: Read the following very carefully. To prevent any potential misunderstanding, I'm not suggesting that you hide this book from your partner or keep it a secret. In their best-selling book The Rules, coauthors Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider urge readers not to let their partner, friends, or therapist know that they're reading it, which is both appalling and frightening. It's censorship at its worst -- withholding important information for fear of disapproval or criticism. Any book, seminar, or other means of gaining relationship advice should be strong enough to hold up to scrutiny, challenge, and intelligent debate. There is a difference, for example, between hiding this book from your partner and consciously choosing how, when, and why you choose to share it, or perhaps choosing not to share it at all.
Here's how to decide: If you trust your partner to be supportive, or at least neutral in his response, then by all means, show it, read passages aloud, keep it on your nightstand, do whatever feels right. If your mate acts a little put off, then you make the call. You're a big girl; you can handle a little questioning, jabbing, or even criticism, if it's all in good fun or fodder for stimulating conversation.
If, on the other hand, based on experience you anticipate that your partner will be disdainful or even abusive, then why give him the opportunity to hurt you? There's no rule that says you have to share everything. After all, you probably don't show him every article you read in Mirabella or every camisole you admire in the Victoria's Secret catalog. Some things are meant for you alone, and if your mate can't be supportive of your reading this or any other self-help books, joining a women's support group, or attending a workshop, then don't give him any ammunition. Frankly, it's his loss. Ironically, despite his fears, everything in this book, for instance, is designed to increase your acceptance and appreciation of your mate and to give you strategies for improving your relationship. Regardless of his reaction, he will reap the benefits. But don't waste your breath reading him the previous sentence. It's tempting to invoke an "expert's" words to persuade our partner of our point of view, but this is just another way of putting your energy into changing him instead of staying focused on yourself. Instead, keep reading as we go on to explore how we, as women, may unknowingly undermine our own success by the way we respond to our partner's lack of reciprocity in pursuing deeper intimacy.
HOW WE MAKE IT WORSE
Whether or not we like it, we have a part in each and every dynamic in our relationship. What we feel, say, and do has a significant impact on our partner's behavior, and vice versa, in what is often referred to as the "dance" of relationships.
In other words, it takes two to tango. We aren't flawless, no one is, and even if we believe that our partner has a bigger part in creating the issues in our relationship, we still have to take responsibility for how we react, play into, or even provoke his behavior.
Regarding the issue at hand, the biggest error women make is in pushing or manipulating our partner to express interest in or participate in what we care about, regardless of his feelings. For instance, we may shove this book in his face, insisting he read it, or read passages aloud, forcing him to be a captive audience, emphasis on the word captive. We may taunt him by making sarcastic, biting, or loaded comments based on the material and use it to get his goat. We may get angry at his lack of interest and start a fight, accusing him of being clueless or an ostrich, sticking his head in the sand rather than being willing to honestly look at issues in our relationship. We may act out byusing the book as a subtle threat, reminding him that he's up to Number Eight, so he'd better listen up or else..."
All of the above responses to his lack of interest are understandable, but they just plain won't work. We want our partner to "get it," and we think we can help him "get it" by involving him in reading this book, exploring his feelings, or sharing other ways in which we are trying to improve our relationship. But instead of his "getting it," he's only going to get mad when we impose our agenda and pressure him when he either couldn't care less, has better things to do, or for all the reasons discussed earlier, would rather not delve into this material.
Another way in which we contribute to the problem is by making our way the right way instead of respecting the fact that our mate has a different way of dealing with his feelings. Just because we find it useful to actively pursue personal growth and the strengthening of our relationshipdoesn't mean that our way is the only or the best way to gain insight or explore meaningful issues. Our partner may think about the same things while he's trimming the hedges or working on his car; he may even talk about them with some of his friends. When we're self-righteous, using ourselves as the standard of excellence against which we judge his way of doing things, we are being disrespectful and driving more of a wedge between ourselves and our mate.
It's hard to stop. Why? Because we care so much. Besides, we're pretty sure we're on the right track and that if he'd only just be receptive to what we have to share, our relationship would be in a lot better shape. Maybe so, maybe not. Pressuring our partner is rarely effective, and then, only when our partner is up against the wall, willing to do anything to salvage the marriage and regain our goodwill. Hopefully, your relationship isn't in these dire straits, in which case it's much more effective to back off and let your mate explore his feelings in his own way rather than imposing on him your own agenda or criticizing him for being who he is.
Our intense feelings are what make this so challenging. We want so badly for our partner to be an active participant in our pursuits that even when we promise ourselves to leave him alone, even when we make a pact with our best friend that we'll stop nudging him or resenting his lack of involvement, we may have trouble keeping our commitment. That's because of how hurt, angry, and disappointed we may feel, which is one of the reasons you're reading this book, and one of the reasons you may wish he would do the same.
WHAT HOOKS US
Ideally, we would be able to blow off (accept, understand, let go of) the things our partner does or doesn't do that make us frustrated or angry. But that's easier said than done. It's hard to detach and keep saying "it's okay" when it really doesn't feel okay. Even when we're able to say to ourselves "no big deal" or "that's just the way he is," we may be seething inside.
We're human, which means we get angry, bummed out, and just plain hurt. In short, we get emotionally hooked. Throughout this book we'll explore the "emotional hooks" -- what really bothers us about the specific issue we're talking about.
In this case, the emotional aspect is related to our investment in our relationship and our anger that our mate may not be equally invested. Every hour we spend thinking about how to solve a problem in our relationship, every conversation we have with friends about the best way to approach our partner, every single dollar we spend on yet another self-help book, seminar, or counseling session represents the magnitude of our commitment to our mate and to our relationship. Meanwhile, we keep hoping he'll meet us halfway, or at least take some steps in the right direction.
We're simply getting sick of doing all, or most of, the investing. Granted, we are choosing to do so; no one held you at gunpoint, said, "Hand over the money, lady," and forced you to buy and read this book. But somehow that doesn't matter. The more we invest -- and the less our mate reciprocates -- the angrier we get. Each time our partner assures us he's willing to try and then capitulates, we get emotionally hooked -- maybe this time he'll come through!
Nancy, a woman in one of my workshops, says, "I've been in a women's support group for eight years. I've worked really hard at looking at my issues, and I still can't get my husband, Brad, to spend more than twenty minutes talking about what's going on in our relationship. Here's what I told Nancy: Give it up. Instead of trying to "get" Brad to change, simply do what you want and learn what you can, whether or not Brad is open or willing to participate.
When we are the one doing all the "relationship maintenance" and especially if we're getting criticized for doing so, we're bound to feel that something isn't fair. It isn't. But, as I will repeatedly stress throughout this book, the smartest approach to solving relationship problems with men is to forget about what's "fair" and think about what "works." To do so, start with the following simple solutions.
If you want your mate to be more involved in relationship building, MAKE IT A CHOICE rather than an ultimatum or demand. Giving our partner a choice has two distinct rewards. First, he doesn't feel pressured and therefore he has no reason to be on the defensive. If it's his choice, he can say yes, no, maybe, or later, but it's his decision and it isn't going to turn into a power struggle, which is what he wants to avoid at all costs. Second, giving him a choice puts us in a much better position. We offer to share something that's important to us, but we don't go so far out on a limb as to risk criticism or other negative repercussions.
Be careful, however, that you're giving him a "clean" choice, in other words, that there's no strings attached. The only way to protect yourself and increase the possibility of his responding in a positive way is to GIVE HIM THE CHOICE WITHOUT A VESTED INTEREST IN THE OUTCOME. This sounds easy, but it requires being quite self-aware. We're not always conscious of how emotionally invested we are in our mate's coming through for us. For example, if you mention that it's been weeks since the two of you have really had time to sit down and talk about how your relationship is going and he says, "You know, I was thinkingwe should go away this weekend to a cabin and spend some quiet time just being together" (I know. Where is this man?), it's tempting to throw a party and invite the world. If, on the other hand, he says, "Here we go again.I knew we couldn't just have fun together without having to talk about our feelings," it's natural to feel embarrassed or put off. But you haven't done anything wrong. He's simply not ready or willing to be emotionally present, inwhich case, it's time to back off. And what to do about our feelings? Call a friend. Take a walk. Write in your journal an keep repeating to yourself: I feel good about doing everything I can to improve our relationship.
The second simple solution is to ONLY SHARE ASPECTS OF YOUR SEARCH FOR RELATIONSHIP ANSWERS THAT YOU FEEL ARE ESPECIALLY RELEVENT AND POTENTIALLY HELPFUL TO YOUR RELATIONSHIP. It's normal to get excited when we read or hear something that rings true, especially if it reinforces our point of view and confirms our "take" on our relationship. Again, proceed with caution. Remember: This is about being smart, safe, and strategic. For example, you may choose to share part of a therapy appointment that was particularly powerful and/or relates to your relationship, but you needn't feel compelled to give your partner every detail of the session. Or if you choose to read or point out a certain passage in this book, be careful to do so in a way that doesn't alienate or offend him. For instance, even if you've been fighting for years over his being a "weekend dad" instead of an equal parent, resist the urge to highlight the section on how men should do their share. Don't lean over his shoulder while he's reading or say, "See, I'm not the only one who feels this way!" Don't gloat. Don't push it. Don't use this book as an object lesson because it will blow up in your face. The instant your mate feels the slightest pressure, he's likely to put the book down, if not hurl it across the room with a few chosen expletives to make his point. If you choose to share some of the content, do so in a spirit of love and camaraderie. And it doesn't hurt to say, "Thanks for reading that" or "It really helped to talk to you about my therapy session." This may seem like pandering, but appreciation goes a long way, and, besides, what does it cost you to go the extra mile?
Whether you choose to share this book or keep it offlimits, there certainly are others -- close friends, for example -- with whom you could share your experience. GO TO WHERE YOU CAN COUNT ON RECEIVING ENCOURAGEMENT AND SUPPORT. Think about it. Which would you rather do? Read your mate a passage of this book that's likely to provoke a scene or read the same passage to your best friend who giggles, sighs, and tells you the wonderfully gory details of the latest episode with her mate? In other words, learn how to go to a full well. What matters is for you to share only your personal feelings and discoveries with those individuals who "get it," who take you seriously and respect your efforts to improve yourself and your relationship. And regardless of whether or not you can share your process with others, give yourself credit for your continuing efforts to grow and to help your relationship grow.
ON THE BRIGHT SIDE
Whatever you do, whether you decide to share some, all, or none of what you're learning with your partner, it's your choice! There's something to be said for protecting (and savoring) your private life. For example, it may bemuch more fun to keep this book off-limits from your mate. The bonus: Your partner may get curious, intrigued, and even a little paranoid about what you're reading, which may lead to his asking -- even begging -- you to let him in on the secret. Wait.
Enjoy this moment and keep reading.
Copyright © 1999 by Ellen Sue Stern