by guest blogger Pam Fullerton, psychotherapist and writer
Do you ever feel lonely in your relationship? Do you crave a deepened connection with your partner? This is an important topic for all of us. In order to shed light on the subject, I’m going to share an intimate conversation that I had with my mentor, Walt.
It began with a phone call to Walt as he lay in a nursing home, reflecting on his life. It was his 85th birthday. During our conversation, he shared with me that he had been feeling down and had been reflecting on his marriage of 50 years. Walt’s wife had passed some years back.
This was part of our conversation:
Walt: Did you know that my wife loved the French language?
Me: No, I didn’t.
Walt: I wish I had taken French classes with her. She would have loved it… I would have enjoyed watching her love it… and I would have enjoyed it, as well.
I was beginning to tear up at this point in our conversation, partly because I could feel his pain and regret, but also because he was tapping into something that I was feeling in my own marriage.
Me: Why didn’t you?
Walt: I spent too much of my life “self-actualizing.”
Me: What do you mean by that?
Walt: I was trying to find my purpose in life: how I was supposed to add value and what I was meant to contribute to others. But now I regret that I wasn’t more present with my wife. I didn’t know it at the time because I was so focused on meaning and purpose.
His expressed regret brought tears to my eyes. I could feel his pain. Additionally, I recognized the similarity in my marriage, meaning that I have seen my husband struggle to find purpose and meaning in his work. I understand clearly how that has affected both of us in our relationship. I wondered aloud if this was common for men.
I spend much of my time studying and trying to learn as much as I can about the challenges people go through in their relationships, so I had to persist in this conversation. I think that many women wish that their partner would be more present, that they would want to take a French class together (or have their partner participate in whatever it is that is important to them). But this was a painful conversation for Walt. He was feeling his regret as he shared it with me, but at the same time, I knew he was trying to understand his part in why he was more self-focused than relationally focused.
I want to interject here and say that this post is not about blaming, shaming, or bashing men…or anyone. It’s about trying to understand the experience of men and women both individually and relationally. Understanding is the only way that we will come together as partners.
So I continued with our conversation:
Me: I believe that women are more relationally minded than men.
Walt: What do you mean when you say relationally minded?
Me: Well, my husband is outside weeding the garden, and I know in part he does it because he believes that it will make me happy. And when I come home from work, he asks me if he can get me a glass of wine. All of this is wonderful, and I appreciate his hard work in the garden and his thoughtfulness in pouring me a glass of wine. However, I wish that he would ask me to garden with him and ask me to sit down with him to drink that glass of wine.
Men have shared with me that they want to make the woman they love happy, and feel discouraged when she is not happy. But weeding is not relational, and pouring me wine isn’t relational. It is doing for rather than doing with. While this is not wrong—it is nice when someone does something for you—doing for needs to be balanced with doing with. I don’t believe that a man feels a deepened connection to a woman when the woman works in the garden or pours him a glass of wine. He might appreciate it, but it doesn’t deepen their connection to each other. Woman express to me that they want men to partner with them (although this may mean different things for different women).
At this point Walt said, “But women can sometimes be punishing and demanding.” I was a bit taken aback by this comment because Walt is a bit Yoda-like, and I’d never heard something like this come from him. I told him that I needed to think about it for a moment.
Upon reflection, I said to him that women grow weary of thinking relationally, craving partnering, and not getting it in return, so they withdraw because they are hurt and angry. At this point, they often express to men “Why don’t you…?” This may sound demanding, but it comes from frustration and a desire for a deepened connection.
Walt agreed and then said that he needed to think about how to defend men. I said, “NO! Not defend—support.” As little boys, today’s men were taught that it was wrong to be relational, even shameful. They were called “mama’s boys” and “sissies” if they were close to their mothers. In adulthood, men are also discouraged from thinking relationally because they will be referred to as “whipped” or “henpecked.” Walt agreed.
Me: What can women do to encourage men to be relational?
Walt: Men need to know how they will benefit.
At this point, I was frustrated because I wanted a concrete answer.
Me: What do you mean “benefit”? That sounds selfish!
In part, I was asking for myself and for my marriage but also for all the men and women I work with who want a deepened connection and yet struggle to get it.
I persisted in thinking about how men would benefit by being relationally minded. It occurred to me that men want women to be happy and they want to feel appreciated and they want affection—not just sex but affection. These are just a few of the benefits a man will experience by being relationally minded in his relationship with his wife. As he learns to be more relational, he will experience the vast benefits of being relationally minded: His relationships with his children will deepen, and he will be a better boss and employee.
BUT men do have to experience how this will impact them. Being told is one thing, but the experience is completely different.
I’m convinced that men crave partnering just as much as women. I heard something interesting on NPR about the rise in biker gangs at times when men return home from the military. In part, it’s because they crave camaraderie and a shared mission. It occurred to me that perhaps many men reenlist for active duty in the military because they crave that same camaraderie. Shortly after I heard this, I heard a general talk about the camaraderie in war. The speaker said, “It is sometimes hard to explain to others about the bond formed between the soldiers in combat—the shared commitment to mission, the unspoken reliance on each other, the indefinable trust that is forged. It is a brotherhood that only a few understand.” I thought to myself: It’s true; men do crave connection.
And then it hit me…
Men would benefit if they recognized the value of the camaraderie they could experience in their marriage.
I’ve shared this story with my clients. Women tear up as I share this with them. They tell me that I am describing their life. Men agree and want to know more.
One more important story: I was working with a man who shared with me that he had recently spent a day doing heavy gardening because he knew that his wife had her hands full. At the end of the day, he showed her the garden. He was proud. He’d worked hard. His wife said it looked nice and she appreciated all of his hard work. He shared with me that he had thought to himself, Really! That’s all you got! I just spent hours busting my ass, and that’s it?
Later that week, he talked with her about an idea he had to make more money. He told her that he wanted her to be in it with him, he needed her, and he thought that they would be a good team. He explained all of the ways he thought the two of them would benefit: more time together and more time with their children. She lit up and was on board with him.
I told him that the gardening, while thoughtful, kind, and helpful, was only a step toward partnering—but not one that provides the deepened connection that both of them crave. Both of you have important tasks to do, I told him, but when you asked her to work together with you on your idea to earn more income, it was relational. He understood, and it was beautiful!
Men, keep in mind that it isn’t that women want to be glued together at the hip. Women enjoy their alone time, as well. And it isn’t that women are always thinking relationally.
Women, remember that men need connection just as much as women do. But understand that relational thinking will not come easily to men.
So it takes patience and understanding from both of you!
Pam Fullerton has been in private practice as a psychotherapist for the past 19 years. Although she works with a variety of life issues that are presented to her in therapy, her passion is to understand the vast complexities of all relationships. She believes that healthy connections with others are what promote personal growth. Keep up with her writings on relationships, mindfulness, and more by subscribing here.
Note: Details of any stories told in any of my blogs have been changed to protect the identity of people I work with in therapy.
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