I think it’s only fair
Pride can hurt you too
Apologize to her . . .”
– – – Lennon/McCartney
What do men want? You’d think the obvious answer would be sex. But that’s not what I see in my relationship therapy practice
Here’s an imaginary scenario that could happen in a typical couples session.
Mary is angry at Joe because he never says “I love you.”
Joe owns up. He says, “You’re right. I never learned how to speak about my feelings. I thought my actions showed how I feel. But I know it’s important to you. I love you so much. You’re my whole life. I promise to learn how to tell you more often.”
Mary sits there stone faced. The therapist asks her how she feels hearing that. She says that she feels good. She’s very happy to hear that.
The therapist asks, “then why the stone face?”
She says, “Well, I’m glad he’s admitting that it’s his fault. He’s so critical and controlling. I don’t know what’s wrong with him. I mean, I just can’t take it. He has a real problem, Doctor, and I hope you can help him with it. I don’t know why he gets so angry. And not only that he gets mad at me when he hasn’t done what I’ve asked him to do in years! So how do I really know he means what he says?”
The look on Joe’s face shows that his anger level is rising. He can’t hold back. “You see? This is exactly what I am talking about! What about you? It’s always all about me — how it’s all my fault, how it’s all my problem, why can’t you say you’re a part of this, too?”
Mary turns to me and says, “You’re always blaming me! This is what I can’t stand! You’re always saying its my fault! Well it’s not my fault! And I’m certainly not going to listen to you when you talk to me like that! This is the way he treats me all the time! You’ve got to make him stop!”
Joe counters, “I’m not blaming you! I took responsibility for my part. That’s what I started with. I just wish one time you could say, I see, Joe, I get it, yes I have a part in this, too, and I need to work on that. I’m saying it. Why can’t you?”
Joe slumps in despair.
What is going on in this interaction? How did it start so well and end so badly? How could it have gone differently?
There are two reasons this potentially wonderful moment went sour.
The first is what I call couple trap #2. (I’ll get to couple trap #1 in a minute.)
I see this kind of thing all the time. One person in the couple, let’s say the wife, has a need that has gone unmet for years. Finally, their partner meets the need. At this point, the wife should throw her husband a bone. Especially if she wants him to do the good thing again. But that is not what happens.
As soon as the husband says the good thing, I start counting backwards from 10. By the time I get to 7, instead of reinforcing the good, new behavior, the wife rejects what the husband just offered. She’ll say things like: he didn’t say it the right way; he never said it before; he’ll never say it again; he doesn’t really mean it.
This is the amazing proof that couples, just like people, are living organisms. They have a life of their own. They are a system. And systems like the status quo. This is why it is so hard for our government to get anything done. The status quo might stink, but change is harder. In a marriage, when one person tries to change the dynamic, the other person does what they can to bring things back to the old, less-than-ideal way it has always been.
Mary did a great job of that here. She’d been wanting Joe to say “I love you,” and he did, but by the time she finished with him, she’d make sure he wouldn’t say it again for a very long time.
But there’s a second, and perhaps more important part of the dynamic that is going on here that brings me to my Valentine’s Day message for all you lovebirds out there.
Yes, it is true that Joe has a problem, probably many. However, he is making an effort to take responsibility for his part in the marital discord. On the other hand, it should be obvious to the reader that Mary plays her part, too. There’s a reason for the cliché, “it takes two to tango.”
Both partners a system make. A system is a series of interactions that work off of each other. This is called a dynamic.
The problem is, Mary won’t admit to her role in this bad dynamic. Mary is not alone. Many of us have a very hard time seeing, to say nothing of admitting, our faults. Why? Because of a deep feeling of insecurity and inadequacy that goes by the name of shame. Shame is the feeling that goes along with the belief that there is something wrong with you. And shame is about hiding. We don’t want anyone to see our flaws.
Deep down, outside of her conscious awareness, Mary believes she is protecting herself by not admitting her flaws. She believes that to do so would be a sign of weakness, and open herself up to hurt.
Ironically, it is by not admitting her part that she is more apt to get the very kind of treatment she fears.
What happens when we don’t admit our flaws is that our partners feel disconnected from us. And the thing that we want more than anything else is to feel connected to our partners.
Though all we want is that connection, sometimes it is hard to let more of that connection in. That’s what happens with Mary. She wanted to feel connected to Joe, but when he offered the connection it frightened her, and brought up a lifetime of resentment from not having her connection needs met.
As a result, she pushed him away. Feeling Mary’s rejection, Joe got angry, because he wasn’t getting his needs for connection met.
So what do you do?
Here’s where we get to couple trap #1. In this trap, a partner says, “I will if you will, but I won’t if you won’t.” If you think about this game you’ll realize that nobody can win.
So what do we need to replace this with? “I will whether you do or don’t.” If both people do the hard work of change, whether their partner does or not, then everybody wins. That is the only game that works.
And what does that mean for Mary? Mary would have to do one very simple thing. All she would have to do is to do what Joe has done. All she would have to do is listen to what Joe was asking for, and to say, “Yes, I play a part. I am 50% of the problem. I take responsibility for that. When I don’t admit that, it makes you angry because you feel disconnected from me. I’m sorry.”
Sorry. I disagree. I go with John Lennon when he says, “apologize to her.” In order to have the deepest connection and to show the greatest strength one of the most wonderful things we can do for our partners is to admit our shortcomings. It won’t exonerate your partner. Quite the contrary. It will make it more likely you’re partner will admit his own flaws.
So on Valentine’s Day, make your partner happy. Along with chocolates and roses, say you’re sorry.