Rabbi Slatkin explores ways to make your marriage better without having a conversation
Years ago, I received a call from a woman who was interested in couples counseling. There was one problem: her husband refused to join her. I gave her some pointers about how to help her husband become more amenable to counseling and I even recommended a book for her to read. A year later she called me and told me that although the book was helpful, he was still uninterested. At this point she was fed up. I advised her that until her husband was ready, the only thing she could do for the time being was to look at her own contributions to the relationship.
I also recommended a book for her to read entitled How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It by Patricia Love and Steven Stosny. While I do teach couples how to talk about issues in a way that brings them to a closer connection, I recognize that there are times when actions rather than words are needed to bridge the gaps that have developed in a relationship. Given her husband’s refusal to come to my office, I thought this book might provide her with some insight into her relationship and help her improve her situation. I was shocked when she called me a few weeks later and told me that her marriage had drastically improved. While they were still not ready for counseling, her marriage went from intolerable to “better than ever” almost overnight.
What great secret did this book reveal? One of the main contributions of the book is the theory that couples disconnect due to fear and shame. For example, while both men and women fear homelessness equally, they do so for different reasons. If you were to ask a woman what her fears consist of, she would normally cite harm, isolation, and deprivation. In contrast, most men would say that the most difficult part of being homeless would be feeling like a failure. While safety may be an issue for men, it is the shame of being on the street and unemployed that tends to be the primary concern. Understanding this difference in outlook is fundamental in establishing and maintaining a strong connection in a marriage. Men must be conscious not to trigger their wives’ fears, and women must be conscious not to shame their husbands.
This is especially challenging for couples who get married young while they are still in school. Many of the men may not yet be gainfully employed or even have a career path. This can be very scary for women because it can be difficult to have financial security when neither spouse (or even one spouse) is working. For men, being in a position in which they have to depend on others for their support can make them feel inadequate and even ashamed. I have heard numerous stories of young couples for whom male shame is exacerbated by female fear of unemployment and vice versa. In fact, fear and shame can become a vicious cycle: her anxiety triggers his shame, and his shame triggers her anxiety. The only way to break this cycle is to be attentive to each other’s vulnerabilities.
Another classic example of a potentially shame-producing behavior is talking about the relationship in a way that feels accusatory. While many women believe that talking would make them feel better, some men dread it. This is why many men do not want to come for marriage counseling. Some men just aren’t “good at” expressing their emotions and talking about their feelings. Therefore, a counseling setting can feel like a shaming experience for some men, turning a seemingly constructive session into a potentially destructive one. When couples come see me, I often remind them to avoid using accusatory language during sessions. I will tell the “blaming” spouse that s/he really wants to hear what you have to say and understand you so that the two of you can improve your connection, but s/he is going to have a hard time if s/he feels accused or criticized, which will create more disconnection from you. Try sharing your feelings in a way where you take ownership.
Both men and women can cause disconnection in their relationship. When couples become aware of what triggers one another and learn how to relate, they fight less and make more room for positive energy to enter into their relationship. As the women on the phone told me, “we fell in love again, but now it is much deeper.”
Even if your relationship is at a really low point as this one was, there are always ways to address relationship problems, including your own. Try to find a book that gives you new ideas for your relationship.
image credit: Flickr/getzy777