This will be the first in a series of articles in which I hope to describe men's particular challenges to being in a committed relationship. My concern is that it's a very broad subject and my editors tell me I should be limiting myself to 500 words or less. But because I am also concerned about the state of the male psyche and the image women have of men and men have of themselves in relationships, I want to offer some of my views. I acknowledge there are exceptions to everything I will be suggesting here.
Men were raised by women and most men want to make their wives happy just like they wanted to make their mothers happy. For this reason they look to their wives for cues on how they are doing. If their wife is happy, they think they're okay. If their wife is unhappy, they feel like they need to fix something in themselves, the situation, or their wife.
There was a piece of research a while back which showed it's more important for the success of a marriage for the wife to be happy than for the husband to be happy. There are a lot of ways you could interpret this finding. The way I interpret it is that women are typically more attuned to relational nuance, and they act as the proverbial canary in the relationship coal mine. So if the wife is happy, it's a good indicator that the marriage is more solid. The man is often happy simply if his wife is happy.
Now there is nothing wrong with a man being attuned to his wife. The problem with this is that it leaves all the relational burden on the woman. It's too much responsibility for her and it lets the man off the hook for developing his own sense of what's right, what's wrong, what's working, what's not. We can ask the question a few different ways -- "Why should only the woman be allowed to determine the direction of the relationship?" or "Why should the wife have to be the relationship custodian?"
What a man needs to learn from women and from the feminist movement is that we are not isolated islands. We are interdependent in deep and profound ways we are only beginning to understand. But learning these valuable lessons from women shouldn't mean trying to act like a woman. I cringe from the kind of emasculation I sometimes see with men afraid to offend, wanting to fit in with the new version of how a man is supposed to be.
A male acting like a man is nothing more and nothing less than having the courage to be true to himself. This is the hero's journey so often depicted in mythology, fairy tales, and on the big screen. Rather than slaying dragons, aliens, or enemies, the real challenge for most men in today's society is to understand the truth of his essential nature, and then to vanquish whatever fears would prevent him from acting in accordance with that. I know of no better partner for him on this quest than his spouse. And from my work with many women in my practice, they need their men to engage in this journey as much as the man needs to do it for himself.
Do you have a question about your marriage or relationship? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com.