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Illus-Yakity Yak-blogHow Men Are Missing the Mark

By: Greg Douglas, LMHC

During my work with couples I often find that partners seem to be talking to each other, yet neither one actually ‘hears’ what the other is saying. A wife was talking about her difficulties dealing with a child or co-worker while her husband tried to supply her with a specific answer to the problem. While the husband tried to find a solution to the problem the wife felt unheard and unsupported. This is a perfect example of how men are missing the mark. In the following examples I will show how counseling for men helps to diffuse relationship distress and create more positive connections.

Common areas where men miss the mark include:

  • Trying to fix the problem
  • Trying to make a point and change our partner’s mind (needing to be right)
  • Believing that we are mind readers (or experts at reading signals)
  • Feeling attacked in conversations and becoming defensive

Trying to fix the problem:

Men we are very solution oriented and seek to find answers to any problems that come our way. This can be very helpful in some situations such as problem solving at work or repairing a household appliance. However, attempting to simply fix our partner’s problems often contributes to relationship distress. This pattern often devolves into a pattern where the husband is working harder and harder to help his wife, while his wife is feeling like her husband is not listening to her and is not supporting her needs. Couples therapy can be helpful in these situations, and individual counseling for men can guide husbands toward more effective relationship skills.

I find fulfillment in helping my male clients to see how they are working much harder than they have to. There is often no concrete solution to these problems. What we can do is listen and provide emotional support. I recently worked with a young couple who experienced relationship distress, and the wife expressed a great deal of frustration. She didn’t feel heard by her husband. She tried time and again to show him how she felt and why she acted the way she did. Her husband repeatedly tried to show her that she was seeing the situation wrong. His wife felt dismissed and unsupported – and he was frustrated and confused.

A common technique I’ll use in counseling for men seemed to make a huge difference. I simply introduced the idea that the couple needs to focus on giving each other emotional support, rather than talking only about the content (specifics of what was said). Once both partners accepted this mindset they shifted their pattern and were able to reconnect.

The Fix:

  • Listening– We must be engaged and responsive to the emotional content in our partner’s story.
  • Understanding– Showing that we can see why our partner is upset – this starts the healing process.
  • Supporting– Being there emotionally, and expressing empathy, opens up the door for reconnection.

Trying to make our point:

Men often tell me their goal is to “make my partner understand where I’m coming from.” This goal is understandable and often starts out with good intentions, yet it leads right back to the trap of not feeling heard and not feeling supported. When both partners are looking to make a point, one person plays offense (making their point) while the other partner plays defense (defending their point). This dance almost always leads to relationship distress – an endless cycle of back and forth with no resolution (sound familiar?). Another common technique used in couples therapy and counseling for men is to change the goal from making a point or “being heard” to “being able to hear.” This includes showing an ability to soften our approach and relent from our offensive attack to seek and understand where our partner is coming from (it is often not what you initially thought).

The Fix:

  • Stop playing offense and be responsive and empathetic– One of the keys to breaking out of this cycle of relationship distress is backing down from the position of offense and changing the goal of the interaction. Instead of trying to make one’s point, the goal needs to shift to understanding your partner’s feelings and needs.
  • Practice patience– Ask your partner to explain her viewpoint first.
  • Tune in– Repeat what your partner has said in your own words to show you are intently listening.
  • Validate her feelings– Respect that your partner may have different feelings than your own. This does not mean either of you are right or wrong.

Thinking we can read minds or interpret signals:

For men it is often difficult to read signals from women. We are witness to many signals on a daily basis, from changing body language to shifts in mood. Trying to interpret these signals without actually knowing how our partner feels and why they are acting this way is a recipe for relationship distress. We can’t read minds, and neither can our partners. Counseling for men helps us to be more in tune and engaged with our partner, which lessens the chance that signals are crossed and messages are misinterpreted. This gives us the chance to communicate effectively and avoid the many traps that come with believing we are experts at receiving signals.

The Fix:

  • Remain emotionally engaged– Rather than jumping to conclusions about what they’re thinking or feeling, we need to ask and to be open to hearing them and seeking to understand their experience.
  • Be willing to show a vulnerable side– Putting our own emotions out on the line can be scary. But there are many benefits, such as better connection, greater intimacy, and increased safety in the relationship.

Feeling Attacked and Becoming Defensive:

Men often fear coming to couples therapy. They may see this as sitting on a couch while their wives remind them of all the ways they are failing. Men often feel attacked and respond defensively as a way of protecting themselves. In counseling for men, many of my clients are very proud and do the best they can. Negotiating the multiple roles that men must excel in– along with being sensitive to their wives – can be very difficult for men today. When wives complain, men often experience this as an emotional wound to their pride and ego. The way to avoid becoming defensive is to understand that our partners probably love us, but they are experiencing their own perception of relationship distress. They are not complaining to make us feel bad. Rather, they may be protesting a need that is not currently being met. We must work to avoid personalizing what our wives say, and seek to understand how they feel and what we can do to respond with emotional support and empathy.

The Fix:

  • Don’t take it personally– Work to avoid personalizing what your spouse has said and seek to find a deeper meaning behind their protest.
  • Become compassionate and empathetic– Understanding that most of us are trying very hard to do our best can help us to see a need for increased support instead of defensive arguing.

If you would like more information about counseling for men and relationship distress – or if you would like to schedule a session with one of our counselors, please contact us today.