In The Doghouse... Again: Male and Misunderstood
Dr. Lynn Margolies
Why do men so often find themselves in the doghouse with women?
They try to please. They try to say the “right” thing. They do favors, buy gifts, work hard, and aim to live up to their responsibilities as a man.
The story is familiar. Adam has been married for 10 years. He goes out of his way to be agreeable. So when his wife wants her family to visit the week before his bar exam, he tells her it is okay. He wants to make her happy and keep the peace. Though secretly hurt and irritated that she didn’t consider him, he can live with it.
When his in-laws arrive, he is late coming home from work, cordial and dutiful, though aloof. He finds himself inexplicably getting into political debates with his in-laws. His wife gets angry at him, accusing him of being unfriendly, distant, and argumentative. Fuming, he feels unappreciated - having given in yet again, only to be met by criticism. He can’t win. His wife complains that he is setting her up, arguing that he agreed to have them over. Now he’s pretending he did nothing wrong and blaming her.
How do you guys end up stuck in the same mess again and again?
Men frequently overestimate their ability to sacrifice themselves and be agreeable. Accommodating feels thankless when they nonetheless encounter complaints from their partner. Patterns of self-sacrifice lead to a build-up of resentment and hurt, of which the guy is often unaware, except by way of his woman’s unhappiness and persistent accusations. Men minimize their feelings, but unbeknownst to them, the hurt and resentment find their voice in another form.
These feelings may be disguised, even from men themselves, and expressed through behaviors such as: forgetting, lateness, tuning out, silence, and grouchiness. When resentment manifests ambiguously and without awareness or accountability, frustration follows - without resolution.
This is not what you had planned. You were trying to be nice and actually avoid a problem. How can that backfire?
Men are under tremendous pressure to perform, measure up to other men, and be successful. They aren’t supposed to complain, be scared, or depend on others. Perhaps the most challenging of the responsibilities they assume is making women happy, a daunting and seemingly unsolvable mystery.
You guys are in trouble before you can even speak.
Contrary to stereotypes, boys begin life even more vulnerable than girls - as infants they are more distressed by separation from mothers, less secure, and show greater difficulty recovering from distress. Growing up boys are shamed for showing sadness, fear, and dependency - feelings that are universal, not the territory of gender or age. Boys learn quickly these reactions will get them labeled a “momma’s boy.” Under penalty of humiliation, they shun vulnerability, eventually becoming removed from awareness of even their own experience of these feelings.
Later, this condition may manifest in reacting to women’s hurt by feeling criticized - responding with insensitivity, contempt, and/or counterattack. To ward off shame brought on by hurt or loneliness, men may act opposite to how they feel, “suck it up”, distract themselves through work and addictions, or become controlling. These unconscious defenses mask the part of men longing for love and support, thereby perpetuating being misunderstood and unfulfilled.
Men have been seen as having the power in relationships. But guys themselves know they are stumbling in the dark, while their partners can see. Many of you secretly believe you are the only guy with this handicap, which makes the problem worse because now you also have to worry about being inferior to your buddies. This explains the psychological finding that men get stronger and their shame diminishes when they have the courage to talk openly to other guys. Men who talk openly to other men in men’s groups have been found to improve in their relationships with women more than those who just talk to a therapist alone. In talking to each other, they find out the real deal. They are not inadequate. Just guys. And in good company.
Men are not tuned into the reality of their own emotional state. Without this information to show them the way, they are at a significant disadvantage. In intimate relationships feelings are the operative force and the “loudest” communication of all, regardless of one’s awareness of them. Beginning as babies, the non-verbal, feeling aspects of interaction penetrate us through tone, mood, and facial expression. When men are cut off from awareness of the emotional component of their communication, confusion ensues. And they are alone, without a guide.
So what is to be done? No one should be fooled by men’s exterior. She doesn’t need you to be more than mortal. And your buddies are right there with you in the same boat. Both men and women must expect and be “onto” the presence of a hidden dimension of men. This side of men must be greeted with openness and interest in a non-judgmental way, allowing men to more fully participate in relationships. If women can recognize men’s strengths and appreciate loving gestures as such even if they don’t yet hit the mark, then they will truly become allies. When men and women decide that they are both on the same side, men can finally score, but the win is for the team.
Dr. Lynn Margolies is a psychologist in private practice in Newton. Her website is drlynnmargolies.com