Marcus Williams wonders if he can talk about his marriage and still be respectful toward his wife.
I consider myself a fairly introspective, in-touch-with-my-feelings kind of guy, but when it comes to talking about my relationships–and more specifically, my marriage—I find myself feeling isolated because there is no one I feel “allowed” to talk about it with. Talking about what’s good about about it is no problem—no one is made vulnerable by talking about the good stuff. (When’s the last time someone said to you, “Do you have a few minutes? I really need to talk to you about how connected I feel in my marriage.”)? It’s the vulnerable stuff, the rants I want to get off my chest, or the problems I’d like feedback on, that I don’t know who a loving husband is supposed to share with.
I expect the first obvious answer to be: “Your wife!” Fantastic. I’m all for communication being the foundation of a healthy relationship. That is not helpful, however, when the thing I want to discuss is about her, or when the problem is needing input on how to communicate about a touchy subject. The second obvious answer is, “A therapist!” which is also fantastic given enough time and money to afford one, but are those two obvious answers the only ones a man can avail himself of without disrespecting his wife?
I take it for granted that women are more likely than men to talk about their relationships, in intimate detail, and by “intimate”, I’m not just talking about sex. I assume my wife talks about me or our marriage with her close friends, and that they reciprocate, without me having to probe for details. Most likely, I would not be comfortable to know the details, but the fact that those conversations happen does not bother me. It even seems like a healthy thing to me. I don’t feel that same freedom to discuss intimate details with others, though, which feels…unhealthy.
Here’s my breakdown of the different categories of people outside the relationship that I could potentially talk to, and why I find each one potentially problematic:
1. Family – They know me and care about me, but the problem I’ve seen with venting to family is that it can sour their relationship with your spouse. I’ve been on the listening end for a sister who eventually divorced, and remember how difficult it was to feel positive about her marriage or husband—even when she was having a good day—because I was accustomed to hearing so much about what was wrong with it. I was on the venting end during my first marriage, and think there was a similar effect. A little older and I hope wiser, I want my family’s support through ups and downs, but there’s a limit to how comfortable I am telling them about the downs, because I know how that can lead to an unintended (and undeserved) bias against my spouse.
2. Mutual friends, male or female –The mutual friends would seem to be a promising source of insight and understanding, since they know and care about both of us. Like family, though, that can make them too close. If I want to sound off about complaints or problems I’m having, I don’t want that to become the lens through which they view our marriage. I also don’t want to embarrass or disrespect my wife to people who know her.
3. Mono-friend, male – I don’t know of a word for “friend to one person in the relationship”, so I’m calling that a mono-friend. I can and have talked about relationships with male mono-friends, but honestly, they tend not to get very specific or go very deep. It’s not that we don’t care or can’t think about our relationships, but it’s just not the kind of conversation guys have, at least in my experience. If there are problems with our sex lives, for example, that may come out in a humorous complaint where we commiserate with each other (like Charlie Capen’s “Why won’t my wife have sex with me?”) but in a bona fide deep conversation with another man or group of men, I’ve never heard someone discuss in thoughtful detail a topic like how he can improve his wife’s fellatio technique. There’s a level of personal detail that guys just don’t talk to other guys about, especially if it involves their wives. I’ve had that level of conversation a couple of times when divorces were pending, but not about the day-to-day challenges of keeping a marriage going. Maybe it’s a thing about showing weakness, like there’s some evo-psych reason for not wanting to reveal any weakness in the bond you have with your mate to another male. Or maybe it’s patriarchy. I’m always fuzzy on which one to give the credit.
4. Mono-friend, female — This is the most awkward category for me, because honestly, it’s the most appealing choice when it’s available to me. I have some guy friends and my best friend is a guy I’ve known since the first grade, but not being an especially macho kind of guy to begin with, I have gravitated more toward women as my close friends. That entailed some unreciprocated crushes in my single days, but sexual tension notwithstanding, I’ve usually connected more easily with women than with men. For relationship talk, they’re more likely to be interested, usually more at ease discussing it, and importantly, more likely to give me some insight into the female mind than my man friends, who are mostly guessing like me.
The drawback of turning to a female mono-friend to vent or seek feedback about my marriage is that it is, by it’s very nature, intimate stuff. It’s not like having sex, but if the conversation is going well and it’s not a one-time thing, it makes for an emotional connection with someone who is not my wife. I don’t think we (all humans, not just men) are only allowed one intimate, emotional connection, but I honestly don’t know exactly where the line is. I used to think I did, because to me the line was sex, but I’ve heard enough stories from women now to realize that at least for some, an emotional connection outside the marriage can cross the line into cheating territory. In particular, it’s the sex talk I don’t know what to do with. I doubt my wife would mind me griping to someone she doesn’t know about…making something up now…how long it takes her to get ready to go out; if I want to talk about…making something up…her pole dancing technique, I don’t feel like I have the same leeway. But what if I really want to talk about her pole dancing?
5. Strangers — Hi, Readers! I don’t know most of you, but are you enjoying this glimpse of my soul, nicely filleted and spread out, ready to be salted with comments?
But seriously, it can sometimes be easier to be vulnerable to strangers than to people I know, especially on the Internet where I have the option of hiding behind a layer or two of anonymity. It can feel better than staying completely bottled up, but it usually falls short of that real connection I’m after. When I’m lucky and connect with someone that leads to some one-on-one contact, that’s great, but then they usually move to Category #3 or #4 above and inherit the same problems. One terrific woman went from Category #5 to #4, to Wife #2 (my favorite!), but I was already done with marriage #1, so that’s a different story.
Back to the point—who am I, or men generally, supposed to talk to when we have complaints or problems about our marriage? I don’t feel like it’s my wife forbidding me to talk about her or us outside our marriage, but it’s one of those things that I just feel is expected of me as a man. Maybe I’m imagining it, though, so I’m interested to hear in comments — from both men and women — about what you think the boundaries are, and why? I’m specifically asking about men talking about their relationships (e.g., sex lives, communication gaps, parenting conflicts, ruined anythings, etc.), not women. I’d love to hear from Josie and Eli of SheSaidHeSaid on this, but I don’t think I could fit all that into a 3-sentence question, and if I did, they’d get the byline instead of me.