What Men Say About Their Wives Behind Closed Doors
Dr. Lynn Margolies
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas which occur in families.
JOSH was engaged to be married. He confessed that he loved Karen, but was scared of feeling trapped. Though this is commonly known as a fairly typical male reaction to getting married, in this case it was more than just “cold feet.” Josh often talked in the men’s group about Karen’s reaction when he made plans with the guys. She would seem ok with it until that day would arrive. Prior to Josh leaving, Karen would predictably struggle with him about it. "Why aren’t I enough for you? I don’t understand. It seems like you don’t really enjoy spending time with me the way you do with them." Eventually, they would end up in an argument with Karen in tears, which led to Josh feeling guilty about leaving. There were times when Josh ultimately didn’t go ahead with his plans and, when he did, rather than feeling free to have fun, he was instead preoccupied with Karen being upset with him.
STEVE seemed deflated as he talked about his wife, Sonya. He had just gotten a promotion to be a professor, something he had worked hard to achieve. Sonya had a fairly high status job herself. When Steve told Sonya about it, she did not seem very interested - definitely not impressed.
He thought back to the party they went to recently with some of Steve’s colleagues and friends. Many of them talked about what a great guy he was, telling stories from work. Steve was within earshot when Sonya commented sarcastically, "Hmm, funny how at home he doesn’t seem so great!" It reminded him of Michelle Obama’s comment during the primaries about how "stinky" Obama was in the morning. On the way home Sonya remarked that she finds it annoying that everyone seems to have to brag about him to her "for some reason."
DAVID seemed to live in a constant state of underlying anxiety and hyper-vigilance at home. He was generally a perfectionist and tried hard to do the "right" thing. He seemed very focused on keeping his wife, Jeannie, happy - though as one of the guys in the group mentioned - David’s focus on pleasing his wife often seemed compulsively driven by his fear that she would be mad at him.
Jeannie often seemed mad or displeased and wouldn’t tell David why. David felt he could never get it right and was frustrated that he did not seem to know the rules, despite frequently asking Jeannie to just tell him what she wanted. She often remarked angrily that he "should know." But he didn’t know, and dreaded thinking he was in the clear only to find out he had failed again.
David and Jeannie both worked and generally shared the household chores and child-care. In response to Jeannie’s complaint that David didn’t think of her, he tried to do little things for her, for example, taking the baby out on Saturday morning to let her sleep in. Still, somehow David never scored any points for things like this and often found himself on the losing end feeling defeated, though by his own calculations he should have earned extra credits.
Can Wives Also Be Friends?
What do these stories reveal about men and their relationships with women?
They tell us about men in their own words - what they feel deep inside. Underlying each of these vignettes, though not stated explicitly, is a feeling that many men share that their wives are not really their friend. Men's sadness and disappointment is palpable when they talk about feeling alone and unsupported in their marriages because of this missing aspect of connection, common in each of these examples. For men, a "friend" means someone who likes you, is happy for you when you make it, and who encourages you in your career and personal goals because in spite of all else, they really do want you to be happy.
Research on marriage has found that celebrating your partner’s success is an essential ingredient of a good marriage, and actually more predictive of a good marriage than being supportive when your partner is unhappy. At face value, it seems as if it should be easy to believe in your man and his triumphs. So then what got in the way of these women recognizing the good and rejoicing with their husbands in those events that their men felt to be positive and inspiring?
Promoting your man and encouraging his personal development requires allowing him some autonomy - which means recognizing and fostering the aspects of your man and his life - independent of you - that bring him joy, and giving them room to grow. Encouraging your man’s personal development and successes can feel risky to the relationship and therefore requires not only love, but courage and letting go. In order to take this leap of faith, women need to feel a sense of security - within themselves and within the relationship.
Women who feel insecure from their own psychological issues, such as Karen, Josh’s wife, may act possessive to manage their own unacknowledged fear of separation and abandonment, or use their spouse to mask emptiness in their own lives. These women may interpret any sign of separation as betrayal, for example, when men say no to something or express feelings, interests or opinions which differ from theirs.
Other women who feel insecure may also unconsciously hold on too tight to their man but may be reacting to legitimate issues that have occurred in the relationship which affect trust and security - such as a past affair or other dishonesty. In all of these situations, women may react by trying to hold their partners back, keep them down or punish them, in the hope that this will secure them. Not surprisingly, this approach usually backfires, leaving men feeling trapped and wanting to break out, and limiting what they share with their wives.
Steve’s wife, Sonya, was competitive with him. She treated him as if she did not believe in him, often putting him down. This ultimately created a profound feeling of hurt in Steve and led him to doubt their marriage. Though from the start Sonya challenged him to be as successful as she was, and claimed to need this from him - when he did match and even surpass her, she refused to acknowledge his accomplishments and did not seem happy for him.
Both Sonya and Karen experienced their husband’s outside interests and successes as taking away from them and compromising their husband’s devotion to them. Sonya’s resentment about feeling less taken care of in the marriage increased over time as Steve became healthier and for the first time considered his own needs. This resentment contributed to her jabs and muted reactions to his success, reactions which existed all along but over time were exacerbated, as well as experienced differently by Steve.
Our Ever-Changing Relationship Patterns
Unspoken marital contracts, set up early on in relationships, may work in a particular context, but later become unsustainable as a result of changes in one or both partners or new life circumstances. Such unspoken arrangements often involve roles taken on by each partner, usually involving behaviors learned in childhood. For example, with Steve and Sonya, Steve was the "underdog" from the start, but found this role natural for a long time, devoting himself to taking care Sonya’s needs, making himself imperceptible, and even taking pride in not needing or depending on anyone.
Later on, however, Steve’s success and personal growth allowed him to begin expressing himself more as well as recognize that he wanted Sonya’s support and encouragement. These changes in Steve essentially challenged their implicit marital agreement, creating conflict and destabilizing their marriage at its roots.
In such situations, when a relationship pattern worked at one time but is no longer viable, marriages must go through a transition and resettle into a new dynamic that works for both individuals. This reconfiguration requires role flexibility in which, rather than being constrained by having to behave within a fixed set of parameters, partners are able to switch off and take on the other’s role when necessary, for example being able to lean as well as be leaned on. Flexibility in being able to assume different roles according to what works for each partner and the couple at different times is associated with healthy marriages, just as psychological flexibility in general is associated with mental health.
Jeannie, David’s wife, also failed to acknowledge her husband’s good deeds, in this case, specifically his accomplishments within the relationship - on top of creating what David experienced as an atmosphere of unrelenting criticism. Jeannie was angry about the lack of emotional connection between her and David but handled her anger in a unclear and indirect way, leading to further isolation between them.
David, in turn, reacted to Jeannie out of fear, behaving as if he had no power in the marriage, continually trying to accommodate her. This strategy served to perpetuate the power differential in the relationship and contributed to the development of a bully-victim dynamic, lack of authentic connection, and failure to resolve the real issues.
Unresolved anger may spill into the relationship in the form of unremitting disapproval, nit picking, and lack of appreciation. Even in the absence of resentment and conflict, when things are working well they are often invisible and unacknowledged, whereas problems intrude and demand attention. Moreover, when other needs are not being met, the good is easily missed or taken for granted, and entitlement replaces gratitude and appreciation.
Men’s need for love, support, and friendship can go unnoticed because of their own lack of recognition that they need this, leading them to participate in the development of patterns in their marriages in which they feel alone. They conceal their unhappiness at first from themselves and then from their wives and overestimate their ability to sacrifice what they need and want.
Men often contribute to setting up a dynamic where they give up the healthy aspect of their own power. Then, unable to sustain this, they take power back by acting out - or secretly pulling away, building a wall around their hearts and in their relationships that often becomes impenetrable. When women in these cases discover the extent of their husbands’ unhappiness and why, they are often shocked because it was so well disguised often until it is too late.
Tips for Men:
• Recognize that insidious unhappiness and loneliness leads to acting out and/or marital failure.• Be explicit with your wife about what positive changes would help.• Point out when your actions or decisions are out of wanting to be thoughtful, or out of love, so that these efforts are recognized as such.• Resist accommodating out of fear or guilt, keeping in mind that this will only lead to feeling powerless and helpless.• If you are never getting it right, re-consider what may be the problem. When your wife is telling you something, before responding repeat it back to her to make sure you have heard her correctly and to let her know that you have heard what she is saying.• Ask your wife how she is feeling about you lately and if there is anything you can do differently (keeping in mind that this doesn’t commit you to anything and that whatever she tells you can be negotiated).• Thank her when she supports you.• Make time to be together.• Be clear about what is important to you. Try to find a mutually acceptable solution.• When telling your wife what is important to you, for example, going to a game with your friends - try to listen and understand her feelings and objections. Be empathic and find ways - other than giving in - to reassure her and make her feel secure, for example, "I know it is hard for you that I want to go to the game on Saturday. I love you and want to understand how you feel and try to help." Negotiate but know your bottom line.• During conversations with your wife when she doesn’t seem happy for you, puts you down or tries to hold you back, be direct and don’t minimize or disguise the impact of her behavior towards you. Match her intensity in discussions (which is different than acting angry), make eye contact, and resist the impulse to retreat.• Have the courage to consider that you are not in fact trapped. You can choose to work on the marriage - and you can choose to leave if you have to. Allowing yourself to consider this option and even share it with your wife may be scary and create a crisis, but it is empowering too, by creating a sense of urgency that in some cases is needed to provide the impetus for positive change. However, be careful not to use the idea of leaving to escape from having to face the difficult struggles inherent in marriage.• If none of these tips help, consider seeking a marriage therapy consultation.
Tips for Women:
• Recognize that insidious unhappiness, loneliness leads to acting out and/or marital failure.• Recognize that resentments pile up and build walls. Think about the atmosphere you want to create and the effect it will have on both of you. Keep in mind that grudges and punishments are not effective strategies. They lead to impasses, and pollute the relationship - breeding isolation, helplessness, and despair. • Be clear, concrete and explicit about the positive things your husband can do to help, even if it is obvious or he should know.• Instead of giving the cold shoulder, when unhappy or mad, be explicit. Tell him, for example, "When I feel like you are not listening it makes me want to pull away from you."• When voicing unhappiness, keep the focus on what your husband can do concretely to make things better. When discussing problems, be as concise and brief as possible. Limit how much you say when it is your turn to speak and try to limit the number of issues you raise (preferably only one per discussion).• Allow positive moments even if you are mad about something, and express appreciation for positive actions.• Acknowledge your husband’s efforts to express love and be helpful, even if they are not exactly what you asked for.• In gauging how to support him, treat him the way you would treat a friend.• Support him in the interests and pursuits he enjoys which are a part of who he is - separate from the relationship. Manage your anxieties without restricting him.