When people don’t see themselves or their partners in the gender molds used to define them, relationships are set up to fail.
I don’t know what I did wrong. I talked to her just like we’d gone over. I asked if I could talk to her about something important. I so carefully explained that I didn’t think she was doing anything wrong but that I was uncomfortable watching her drink a glass of wine every night. I explained how drinking was a nightly ritual in my house growing up and that I didn’t want our kids seeing their parents having a drink every night, even if it was only one drink. She got defensive right away, thinking I was calling her an alcoholic. She told me that if I was uncomfortable, that it was my problem to deal with and she wasn’t going to stop doing something she enjoyed when she wasn’t doing anything wrong.***
I really feel for this guy. As a therapist, I am always talking to people about their relationships. Sure, processing is part of our discussion but what we really focus on is how they can talk so that the other person will listen. While details have been added or changed to the above dialogue to protect confidentiality, you can see what happened.
This man wanted to make a request of his wife. He knew she might get defensive. He knew she was a good woman with good intentions but he was feeling uncomfortable watching her drink a glass of wine each night. He didn’t at all think she was misusing alcohol or developing a dependency. She always stopped with one glass. He just wanted to share what he thought about when she did that and wanted to ask her if she was willing to drink less often. She hadn’t always been drinking wine on a nightly basis but had started to over the past few weeks. He simply wanted to address this and was met with defensiveness, a denial of his need, and an unwillingness to talk about it.
Work has been so stressful lately. I have to get up at 3:30 just so I can be the office by 5. That’s a ridiculous schedule and I’ve been missing my wife because I have to go to bed so damned early. I told her so and asked her if she’d come talk to me for a few minutes while I was getting ready to sleep. I didn’t want to talk about anything serious and I wasn’t looking for sex or anything. I just wanted her company and she told me that that time was “her time” and that she didn’t want to miss the beginning of her show. I didn’t ask for that much. There are tons of ways she could re-watch whatever she missed but still, I went to bed alone. Again.***
It’s hard not to feel as though I have set these men up to fail. I’ve validated their feelings, their right to boundaries, and have reassured them that their needs are realistic. I’ve helped them identify their needs and worked with them on respectful ways of presenting them.
Here’s the thing, too. I have enough anecdotal evidence about these women to know they are good women! These are not women anyone should be advised to avoid or break-up with. They are kind, loving, and sensitive. They are good mothers and love their husbands. Neither of these guys is coming to therapy because their marriages are on the brink of disaster.
Why, then, are these well-intentioned guys getting shot down by equally well-intentioned partners?
Truthfully, I blame the whole idea that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Giving relationship advice based on gender is a set-up for failure. That’s what I think happened with these two guys. Their wives aren’t used to the idea that men might have needs, boundaries, and limits. They were cautioned so much about not letting a guy control them and were never taught the differences between someone who’s controlling and someone who has healthy boundaries. Women are reminded all the time that men “don’t talk about their feelings” and are then caught off guard when their husbands act against type.
When we focus relationship advice based on gender differences, we are focusing people on just that—the differences. The ways in which people aren’t alike, where they disagree, how they view things differently. That only serves to further the divide and disconnect.
Going forward, we need to acknowledge that roles of men and women have shifted in relationships and as a result, their experiences within relationships have shifted, too. We can no longer sit on the sidelines with a shrug and say “boys will be boys”. Nor can we afford to pass on the archaic notion of “happy wife, happy life.” Relationships are doomed if we continue to focus on differences and outdated gender stereotypes.
Relationships are not one-size fits all. We have to be careful with the messages we send about better understanding another gender and start focusing on how people can better understand their own partners. How can we listen so we really hear? How do we talk so the other person will listen? Answering those questions involves relationship skills that people need and can be applied regardless of gender.
I was reminded of this in the most humbling way just yesterday. A female client*** saw my GMP article, “The One Undeniable Thing That Men Want in Bed and How to Give It to Them.” She said “I read your article and I got your point but men go through the motions all the time when having sex. It’s not just a female thing.” Point made and duly noted. That’s what it’s like when people see they’ve been placed in a box. They get discouraged, stop reading, learning, or listening.
If we want to give relationship advice that really means something, we have to step outside the gender boxes and start thinking about the experiences of the people we’re trying to reach. Yes, that will mean identifying differences and misunderstandings but hopefully, it will also mean an increased focus on similarities. Increasing the connections rather than furthering the divides seems like a really good place to start.
***: Do to the specific quotations of clients used, their permission was granted and details were changed to protect confidentiality.
More stereotype busting: Are We Really Ready for Emotionally Intelligent Men?
Photo: U.S. Army/Flickr