I want to start this post today by introducing a long time colleague, Deborah Leeds, MFT. Her contact information and website links are at the bottom but for now, I want to say a few words about her, our relationship, and why I've asked her to join me in this post.
Deborah and I have known each other for over 25 years, going to graduate school together, working together at Children's Protective Services in Oakland, and now working together in a group private practice in Pleasant Hill. We have shared many cases over the years, and I have always enjoyed collaborating with her because we are able to differ without our egos getting involved. We are both passionate about working with couples using the Imago methodology (you can check some of my earlier posts for an overview of what this is).
I was nervous about writing about women in relationship for a number of reasons: 1) as a man, I can never be certain if my observations on women are skewed because I simply don't get them as I do a man; 2) I can never know if women respond differently to me than men do because I'm not a woman, whereas a woman therapist saying the same thing would get a different (and more favorable) response, and 3) I worry that even if what I say is accurate, female readers will not be able to hear it because it's coming from a man.
So what better way to cope with these concerns than to ask a respected female colleague to help? The way I envision this unfolding is that it will be in the format of Deborah and I writing each other e-mails on the topic in question. You will get to listen in to our correspondence, and we will get to listen in to your thoughts in the comments section below. Let's get started:
Thank you for agreeing to dialog with me on this topic. In some way the format fits the content, in that discussing women in relationship seems to require a more team approach. I had no problem writing about men from an individualistic, this-is-what-I-think standpoint, but I was very uncomfortable trying to do that with women.
The topic I want to raise today has to do with what I see as a woman's struggle to take responsibility for her part in what goes awry in the relationship. I think that women, by and large correctly, think they are the work horses of the relationship. But it seems to blind them to their role in the difficult dance. That's not the real problem for me however. The real problem for me is that I often find it difficult to get a woman to take responsibility for something without prefacing it with a "Yes but." Usually the "Yes but" is connected to something the man is or isn't doing.
I tell myself "Well, this is because women are so relational they have a hard time seeing their actions as existing in a vacuum." But it is sometimes frustrating for their spouses when a woman is unable to simply say, without artifice or excuse, "I messed up. I'm sorry." With a man I simply tell them: "Dude, you screwed up. Apologize." And they do. That just doesn't work with a woman, at least not in my experience. What do you think?
Thank you for welcoming me into this dialog about relationship; my favorite topic!
What struck me today as I read you, was the sentence "…women are so relational that they have a hard time seeing their actions as existing in a vacuum." I laughed, reflecting on the countless times each day I say to people: "Nothing happens in a vacuum!"
And this I truly believe: Nothing happens outside relationship. And that itself may be at the crux of what you are describing.
In my mind's eye I can see on my office bookshelf a book written by Judith Jordan, I believe in the 1980's, called "Women's Growth In Connection." It was a very important book, as it was one of the "pioneering" studies on the very real differences between men and women's psychology. In it, the author describes the huge influence of relational factors in girls' thinking from a very young age. So, perhaps what you are seeing is literally true: women may not separate out their part because, in a woman's psyche, that separation is not as evident as it may be in man's psyche. Perhaps, more predominantly in women, it is within a deeply internal "relational environment" that things occur, are considered, understood, and responded to.
In my work with couples, and in my own history in relationship, I have seen that sometimes, what makes a difference in "getting there" - being able to account for my piece independent from other feelings and the pieces of the story - is feeling understood by my partner as to why I said or did one thing or another; the "how I got there" piece. It is challenging to put that need aside and understand my partner first.
That, it seems, is the challenge for any individual in a relationship: putting aside our own experience, making a large space for our partner's experience, seeing our role in something "in their world", and trusting that in another moment, we will have the opportunity to be understood. Easier said than done! But so important in building trust and safety in a relationship.
Next week: Josh and Deborah continue the dialog in Women in Relationship, Part II.
Do you have a question about your marriage or relationship? Is there a particular topic on relationships or individual psychological issues you would like addressed in this blog? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deborah Leeds, MFT, is a couples and individual therapist with offices in Pleasant Hill and Berkeley, CA. Visit her website at deborahleeds.com
Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples and individual therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com.